By Zoe Denenberg
Claude Monet possessed an uncanny ability to capture fleeting moments with his paintbrush. Monet's distinctive style, with its eye-catching colors and emphasis on light and shadow, came to be known as impressionism.
But to truly understand an artist, one must first understand the artist's environment. In the 43 years that Monet lived in the natural paradise of Giverny, France, he drew inspiration from the land around him. A mere hour-long car or train ride from Paris, this small town in the north of France is convenient to visit and well worth the trip. By tracing Monet's daily life in Giverny, one can gain a better understanding of the real world behind his whimsical artwork.
When Monet rented this Giverny house in 1883 with his wife and eight children, the property consisted of two acres of land with a barn, orchards and a small garden. Once he became more prosperous, Monet was able to buy the house in 1890. He began to design the property based on his ideal natural scene, greatly expanding the gardens and adding a Japanese-inspired pond.
In the 43 years that Monet lived in Giverny, he produced some of his most famous series of paintings, such as the "Haystacks," the "Rouen Cathedral" and the well-known "Water Lilies." Upon his death in 1926, Monet bequeathed his house to the the French Academy of Fine Arts; the Claude Monet Foundation subsequently restored the house and opened it to the public in 1980.
Upon entrance into Monet's quaint, ivy-covered pink home, it immediately becomes apparent that it once housed an artist. The eclectic collection of paintings curated by Monet fill the walls. Monet's own works, casually hanging on unframed canvases, cover every inch of his naturally-lit study. Just outside the windows are Monet's colorful, fragrant gardens.
Monet's passion for color is exemplified by his distinctive room decor – his kitchen and dining room are each painted and decorated with a single color. The yellow dining room, which is adorned with lemon-hued furniture and an assortment of Japanese woodblock prints, provides a stark contrast to the neighboring Mediterranean-blue kitchen. The kitchen displays copper cookware and a stylish mix of blue-and-white French ceramic tiles.
In each room of Monet's house, a different variety of flowers can be found – Monet always liked to be surrounded by nature, as it was his primary inspiration.
Visitors to Monet's estate at Giverny are immediately greeted by sweet smells and bushes bursting with vibrant reds, yellows and purples. Flowers spill into the footpaths and arches of tangled ivy stretch overhead. It is easy to imagine Monet walking these winding paths at dawn or dusk, finding inspiration for his next painting.
Monet painting image by Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images; Flower image by Diana Mayfield/Getty Images
As an impressionist, Monet drew his inspiration from glimpses of light, shadow and color that shifted with the sun and the seasons. For Monet, his garden was perpetually changing, so his depictions of the flowers are never quite the same.
Painting by Claude Monet; Garden image by Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images
"Claude Monet did not like organized nor constrained gardens," Giverny's website notes, "He married flowers according to their colours (sic) and left them to grow rather freely."
the water gardens
In 1893, Monet bought the land neighboring his property and designed his own Japanese water gardens. Monet strove to create a controlled, yet natural environment – he would later depict this scene in his paintings. Much of his vision for the garden's design came from Japanese woodblock prints. Monet possessed an extensive collection of these prints, for he found that his own impressionistic style aligned well with the open composition and light colors of Japanese artwork.
Painting by Claude Monet; Bridge image by Bryn Campbell/Getty Images
This water garden became a primary source of inspiration for Monet, who found the fleeting mist and illusory reflection of the water to be ever-changing. In 1899, Monet created 12 paintings from the same vantage point of the pond, all depicting the Japanese footbridge. One of the early reviews of this series, which was exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1890, described Monet's self-designed landscape as an impenetrable, mysterious and dreamlike space.
Monet painting image by DeAgostini/Getty Images; Willows image by Daniel Thierry/Getty Images
Monet painted a series of weeping willows in the early 20th century, yet, while they are beautiful, they express a dark message. Painted during World War I, Monet's willows symbolize his mourning of the wide-scale death and destruction brought by the war.
"Due to the war, Monet’s luxurious compound at Giverny was for the most part emptied of his children’s families and his household staff, who were either called into service or moved away from the advancing German army," the Kimbell Art Museum notes on its website. "At times Monet could hear artillery fire, but he refused to leave, preferring to share the fate of his gardens."
Monet painting image by Peter Barritt/Getty Images; Water lilies image by Christian Ender/Getty Images
Monet's "Water Lilies" is certainly one of his most famous bodies of work. This series consists of a whopping 250 oil paintings completed over the course of 30 years. Eight of the most spectacular paintings are housed in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris. According to l'Orangerie, Monet offered these grand paintings to the state of France as a symbol of peace upon the Armistice of the First World War on November 11, 1918.
Although Monet enjoyed painting other natural scenes, his pond remained his favorite subject. Monet described the Water Lilies cycle as an "illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore."
Giverny was just one the many places that inspired Monet's artwork – Paris, Venice, London and countless other European towns were the subjects of some of his most breathtaking pieces. Yet Monet's home at Giverny preserves the distinct details of his life, providing an unparalleled glimpse into the inspiration and meaning behind the artist's adored artwork.
up next: post-impressionism
Learn about the real places behind the paintings of another legendary artist, Vincent van Gogh, in First Impressions: Van Gogh vs. Real Life.