For much of this past year, visitors to the New York Botanical Garden have been treated to a transcendent experience. Stepping through the doorway of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the landmark Victorian greenhouse that is the jewel in NYBG’s crown, they entered the garden of Claude Monet at Giverny. In a singularly ambitious exhibition, the NYBG re-created the Impressionist’s famous French garden in exquisite detail, right down to building a facsimile of the façade,” says Professor Paul Hayes Tucker, America’s foremost Monet scholar who curated the exhibit. “You step onto the path of the allée, and there is a sense of being overwhelmed by the density and aroma of all these flowers.” Changed out seasonally, the exhibit included all of Monet’s favorites: irises, poppies, nasturtiums, roses, delphinium, and foxgloves. In addition to the thoughtful plantings in the conservatory, the exhibit included two of Monet’s paintings, historical photographs of Monet in his garden, and his painter’s palette covered in dabs of the six paint colors he used to achieve the precise, intense hues in his artwork. There was even an iPhone app created in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enabling potential visitors to view select Monet paintings on display and access guidelines for Monet’s garden at Giverny.
“One of the primary reasons I came on board,” says Tucker, “is that it’s really the first time any institution has taken on an exhibit like this, binding horticulture with the artist. Then you add the next layer, having original works of art there, and it makes an extraordinarily rich experience.” Tony Award–winning set designer Scott Pask designed the scaled-down version of the façade of Monet’s charming pink stucco and green-shuttered house, which lines the inner wall of the exhibit entrance, providing visitors with the same perspective Monet would have enjoyed entering his garden. “There is just one flower after another,” says Tucker, “and they are so sensitively arranged in terms of their height and, most importantly for Monet, of their color palettes.”
That attention to color is the work of Elizabeth Murray, a gardener, painter, and photographer who lived and worked at Monet’s garden in Giverny, helping with its restoration, and who photographed the gardens over a period of 25 years. Murray is a self-admitted color fanatic, and it was this finely tuned sense that first brought her to Giverny. “At that time, I had a large garden design business in Carmel, California, doing all the big estates,” she says. “In 1985, I decided to go to Europe to broaden my education. I visited gardens all over Europe, but when I got to Giverny, I fell in love. It spoke to me in a visceral way. But I felt that some of the colors in the plantings were off, and I thought I could help.” She tracked down the curator of the garden and made him an extraordinary offer: She would move to Giverny and work on the gardens, for free. The astonished curator accepted her proposal, and she flew home to begin the process of moving to that magical place. The next spring she moved into an apartment on the property and got to work. At first, things didn’t go smoothly. “The crew couldn’t understand the concept of a professional gardener who would work for nothing, so they worked me really hard in hopes that I would just go away,” she recalls with a laugh.
Luckily, she persevered, since the experience of living and working on the property gave her an intimate vantage point. “It was an amazing experience,” she says, “since I could interact with the house and gardens in such an unusual way, like at dawn, and in the moonlight, or while arranging flowers in the house. I really got the spirit of the place. And I got to know his family—his grandson, Jean-Marie Toulgouat, and his grandson’s wife, Claire Joyes—who allowed me to study Monet family materials, literally letting me search through cupboards and closets. I got to see letters in Monet’s own hand in which he was ordering plants from nurseries.” Among those orders was one to Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, whom Monet met at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris and whose nursery is still in business and provided the lilies for the NYBG exhibit.
The importance of the water lilies at Giverny can’t be overstated. Monet planted the flowering plants in his garden to be a “visual aesthetic paradise,” in the words of Tucker. But he planted the water lilies intentionally as motifs to paint, and spent over 25 years, from 1900 to his death in 1926, immortalizing the novel plants in over 250 paintings. As he was establishing his garden at Giverny, he began to paint in series in an effort to reinvent himself in the face of a crop of new, young artists nipping at his heels. Les Nymphéas (The Water Lilies) series worked, and it made him very wealthy. Replete with funds, he poured them into his garden. A dirt road ran near the lily pond, and dust from passing traffic would routinely drift onto his beloved water lilies. He took to ordering his gardeners to dunk the lilies under the surface of the water to restore their shine. “Finally, he got so irritated with the invasion of the dirt particles,” says Tucker, “that he offered to pay to have it paved.”
“I strongly identify with Monet as an artist,” says Murray, “and as a gardener.” Her photographs of his garden, which she started taking simply to be able to show friends back home the marvelous qualities of Giverny, were on display as part of the NYBG exhibit, which closed in October. Luckily, her book, Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration & Insights from the Painter’s Garden (Pomegranate Press), is in its second printing and offers a rich look into Murray’s own passion for the gardens at Giverny.