Monet’s Garden

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through October 21.

It never occurred to me to wonder about all the flowers Claude Monet painted, and in retrospect, that seems like a real failure of imagination. Surely the artist’s affinity for florals was worth pondering. How could I have gazed at the massive Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA some six, seven, eight times and never once reflected on where an elderly turn-of-the-century Frenchman might have found a massive Japanese-style water garden to paint?

The explanation, as it turns out, is that Monet himself created his splendid gardens at Giverny—one in a traditional French style, the other inspired by Japanese water gardens—and used them not only as subjects for his paintings but also as creative media in their own right, experimenting with different color combinations and varieties to stunning effect. Much of what he wrote indicates that he thought of himself as a gardener as much of a painter and considered his gardens some of his greatest work.

The New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit on Monet’s gardens seeks to celebrate the eminent painter’s perhaps underappreciated genius as a gardener, re-creating his “paint box” flowerbeds, his use of wildflowers alongside more cultivated species, his iconic Japanese footbridge, and, of course, his dramatic pools of water lilies. The result is tantalizing—no doubt an exceedingly poor substitute for Giverny itself but a lovely botanical experience even so.

On first turning into the exhibit’s makeshift Grand Allée (one wing of the Haupt Conservatory), one is greeted with a riot of color, more than a hundred varieties of flowers overflowing their beds and climbing up archways and, at the end of the corridor, clustering around a familiar-looking blue-green bridge over a lily pond. I tend to think of gardens as tranquil, contemplative places, but the Grand Allée is joyfully boisterous and exuberant, not for meditation so much as laughter.

The water garden is far more serene—the contrast between Monet’s two gardens is delightful—but, in the exhibit, it’s also more academic. The entire exhibit features a sometimes awkward meld of art, history, landscaping, and botany, and at the water garden, it noticeably veers toward that last element. Numerous signs neatly label the several dozen plants floating in the two pools, explain the horticultural distinction between tropical and hardy varieties of water lilies, and instruct visitors on how they might cultivate water lilies of their own. Transcendent it’s not, but neither is that the aim, and regardless, the flowers are stunning, with enormous blooms in a wide variety of color, from a pearlescent white to a spectacularly vivid purple.

And honestly, despite the awkwardness of the subject shifts, the exhibit’s more academic elements are fascinating, even if my interests lean more toward the history than the botany. In a nearby building, the exhibit gathers remarkable photographs of Monet in his garden and details his time at Giverny, gradually expanding on his estate (despite his neighbors’ protestations about the water garden), inviting a Japanese landscape artist to visit and advise him, and carefully cultivating the more delicate plants he himself brought to the area.

I think we often conceive of creativity and artistry in very limited, narrow ways, and Monet’s Garden, with its fresh perspective on the master Impressionist, gently disrupts that. It invites us to see the creativity and artistry in the subject matter of Monet’s paintings as well as in the paintings themselves. When I visited the MoMA the day after my trip to the botanical garden, I saw Water Lilies with new eyes.

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