If you take a non-stop train from the St. Lazare station in Paris to the village of Vernon, you can reach Giverny, the home and gardens where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years, in just a little more than 45 minutes.
My wife Chrys and I were fortunate enough to make that trip once. Nothing unusual about that. Some half a million people tour the house and stroll through the gardens each year during the seven months the home is open to the public.
But even if our experience was not unusual, it was special to us — one of the more pleasant days either of us can recall.
In a more tangential way, Giverny figured into another of our more pleasant days, but that day was here in Atlanta. Even though neither my editor at the time nor I knew much about him, I was assigned to interview a visiting French artist, Jean-Marie Toulgouat. As I learned during my conversation with him, Jean-Marie was born at Giverny nine months after Monet died and spent his childhood there. His grandmother, Suzanne Hoschede Butler, was one of Monet’s step-daughters, and his grandfather, the American Impressionist Theodore Earl Butler, was a Monet disciple who had been personally close to the artist. Jean-Marie’s first art teacher, Blanche Hoschedé Monet, was not only a step-daughter but also the widow of Monet’s oldest son, Jean. Blanche had been privileged to be Monet’s only art student.
As a child, Jean-Marie played in a canoe built partly from Monet’s discarded canvasses. He became a very successful artist in his own right but one of his most important contributions might have been his role in the effort to preserve Giverny as it was when Monet died. He not only became a major fund-raiser in France for that project but also acted as unpaid consultant for the restoration of the house and gardens that began in the 1970s.
My interview with Jean-Marie turned into a very long but thoroughly enjoyable one. He was friendly, engaging and humorous. We ended our official meeting by calling our wives — he was married to Claire Joyes, best known as the author of “Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet” — and the four of us went out for a dinner that turned into a totally delightful evening for all of us. We liked Claire as much as we liked Jean-Marie.
I mention both these occasions because I’ve recently enjoyed the closest thing to another visit to Giverny, a stroll through the exhibit of Monet’s iconic water lilies at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. If you live near Atlanta, chances are you’ve already been smart enough to see the exhibit for yourself. If you haven’t gone yet, you can still see the show through Aug. 23. (Then, it’s off to New York for a larger Monet show at the Museum of Modern Art that is expected to be a big hit. The MOMA was the first public museum in the United States to acquire one of Monet’s large-scale water lily paintings.)
The show at the High is billed as “an intimate view of four of Monet’s most spectacular works,” and it lives up to that billing, even though the paintings themselves are huge in scale. One, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” is 42 feet wide. Another painting of the water lilies in Monet’s Japanese-style garden measures 6 feet 6 ½ inches high by more than 19 feet wide. The show also includes “The Japanese Footbridge” and “Agapanthus,” which focuses on plants bordering the pond.
All the more wonder that these works were painted by an old man with failing eyesight. He used long brushes to increase his sense of perspective in works that are now considered among the greatest ever produced by the father of French Impressionism.
Monet, who was born in 1840, died in 1926 — the same year my house was built here in Atlanta. From about 1890 on, he rarely left the grounds of his pink home, which was filled with the Japanese prints he loved and surrounded by the water gardens he had built there. More than 250 of the roughly 3,000 paintings he created in his life depicted water lilies. They were his inspiration, and, despite the fact that cataracts were blurring his vision, he spent most of his time painting the scenes immediately surrounding his house.
A large photograph of the house greets you as you enter the exhibit. From then on, welcome to Giverny.
A footnote to this story: Although Jean-Marie and Claire and Chrys and I vowed to see each other again after our memorable dinner, we never succeeded. I found out only while researching this report that Jean-Marie died on Dec. 10, 2005. In an obituary that didn’t appear until Feb. 4, 2006, The Times of London said he “was a brilliant colourist, whose evident joie de vivre did not totally conceal his firm technical control. It might fairly be said of him, as Cézanne once said of Monet, ‘Only an eye — but what an eye!’ “
Monet Water Lilies at the High Museum: http://www.high.org/main.taf?p=3,1,1,13,1