Monet wrote of his pond at Giverny,
“It took me a long time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pure pleasure of it and I grew them without thinking of painting them…And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette. Since then I’ve had no other model.” Monet’s Water Lilies, Vivian Russell
Water lilies bring Monet’s garden to my mind and understandably so, as his famous painting of shimmering light, water and the very air surrounding these rafts of colorful blooms consumed nearly 25 years of his artistic life. I don’t live with a pond in my garden and I confess that when visiting gardens studying the plants floating on the water has not been my focus. I pay great attention to the flowers on the ground, their color, proportion and textures. In every place Monet lived he developed his flower gardens with great attention to those very things. Yet after settling in Giverny and developing his incredible flower gardens, his water garden became his great passion and our lives are all the richer for it.
Monet attend the Paris Exhibition in 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower made its debut in the Paris skyline. It was there Monet’s paintings finally began to sell. Another creative gardener from Bordeaux, France, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac (JBLM), a hybridizer of water lilies, also attended the exhibition. JBLM was showing his collection of colorful water lilies. While water lilies (Nymphaeas) were grown in early Egyptian gardens the fashion of ornamental plants on ponds was becoming very popular in France. JBLM promoted the idea; “how monotonous a pond without plants would look in a garden.” This thought motivated him to work with his plants in little pots of mud hoping to achieve the greatest variety of bloom colors and hardiness. Monet explored the Paris exposition with his gardening friends and “Monet’s descendants believe he saw the water lilies there.” (V Russell)
Perhaps like all gardeners, when we achieve some success in our passion we seek out another challenge, and for Monet, it was a water garden. His finances now a bit more secure he was able to acquire additional land in Giverny. He saw a way to divert a small section of the Epte river to move into his land providing the water flow to create his pond. He made this request to the planning authority in Giverny in 1893 and “the locals objected, suspicious that he might introduce bizarre and exotic plants that would poison the stream their cattle drank from.” (V Russell) For all of us who have had to weave our way through local regulations it adds a bit of perspective that Monet too had his challenges and fortunately he prevailed.
Water lilies are floating plants described as rafts as their leaves hang together on the underwater stems. The hardy waterlilies can stay in water during a cold winter season. Tropical lilies need to be hauled out of water and protected over a cold winter in a greenhouse. Hawaii and other islands are a great place to see tropical water lilies.
Monet’s pond was a mirror and it was the reflections and the plants merging in the water which seem to intrigue him most of all. His goal was to paint the grass moving under the water in light, which did not define the season. For me, the idea that he could separate the scene so specifically is hard to imagine. Where he saw light shimmer I only saw water lilies as clumps, indistinct from one another, the water dark, the grasses under the water absorbing the light. Only a stand of bright blooms would grab my attention.
This was true until I visited the pond at the Denver Botanical Garden and for the first time clearly saw the great variety in the lily pads themselves. The pristine conditions and the accessible pond allows you to examine a dozen or more varieties. Seeing the variety of pads was the biggest surprise. The shades of green range from chartreuse to darkest of green, even burgundy. The individual pads vary from three inch to the giant queen Victoria variety that may grow nine feet wide. Blooms of vivid red, yellow, orange and white extend upward on stems some reaching 12 inches into the air. The tropicals often bloom in pale colors of pink, peach and lavenders.
The Denver pond has water lilies, cannas, reeds and more. In the Brooklyn Botanical, a small circular pond planted with floating purslane (Ludwiglia sedioides) in chartreuse and red diamond shapes made a kaleidoscope display against the dark water.
Gardens often add a water treatment to color the background for the most vivid displays.
“Monet had a water gardener who went out in the flat bottom boat to clean the water surface and feed the water lilies.” (E. Murray) Denver Botanical must have a special gardener as well to keep their display looking so perfect. Beyond the element of beauty, the plants provide shade which helps reduce algae bloom, the pads provide protection and cover for fish, frogs and turtles. The underwater plants provide oxygen and help clean the water.
Water gardens are usually a feature within a larger garden and it is easy to rush past their beauty. Now I see how a quiet pond in a garden reflects the sky, the changing light, clouds, and the variety of water plants growing along the edge such as reeds, sedges and iris.
Monet saw so clearly the beauty and changeable variety such a garden held. Yet his greatest painting of the water lilies, the grand decorations, were painted in the last five years of his life when he was nearly blind. He had studied the waterlilies, the water, light, and air around them so intensely he could still see them in his mind’s eye for his painting. Learning to really see the unique qualities of plants is a long education and I for one must keep learning how to really see.
Monet’s Passion Ideas, Inspiration & Insights from the Painter’s Gardens, Elizabeth Murray
Monet’s Water Lilies, Vivian Russell