Claude Monet's beloved flower and water gardens in the north of France are world-famous. But for those unable to visit the artist's iconic home, a trip to the Bronx over the next several months will offer a taste of Monet's indisputably radiant living masterpiece — a riotous display of color, plant variety and landscape design.
"Monet's Garden" at the New York Botanical Garden evokes Monet's lush garden at Giverny, the impressionist's home from 1883 until his death in 1926.
A passionate gardener who once declared, "I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers," Monet found endless inspiration from his exuberant gardens. The water garden alone accounts for some 250 paintings, including a series of monumental canvases that led to his Grandes Decorations at the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris. His flower garden is featured in at least 40 works.
The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 21, will feature a seasonally changing display of flora, currently a spring kaleidoscope of poppies, roses, foxgloves, irises and delphiniums inside the botanical garden's Enid A. Haupt Conservancy. It also includes two scarcely seen garden-inspired paintings, Monet's wooden palette, rare photos of Monet in his garden and 30 photographs of Giverny by Elizabeth Murray, who has recorded Monet's flower oasis for 25 years. These are all located at the botanical garden's LuEsther T. Mertz Library.
A facade of Monet's pink stucco house with its bright green shutters — a historically accurate replica by Tony Award-winning set designer Scott Park — marks the start of the exhibition. From there, visitors are led down the Grand Allee, a shorter recreation of Monet's rose-covered trellis pathway lined on both sides with thick beds of vibrant flowers. The path opens up to a replica of his famous Japanese footbridge arching over a water lily pool encircled by willow trees and flowering shrubs.
"He could stand at his doorstep, as you can in this recreation, and look down the allee to the Japanese bridge in the distance," said the exhibition curator, Monet scholar Paul Hayes Tucker.
"Since we know what flowers he planted, we can be very accurate historically," Tucker said. "It is only a fraction of his undertaking but, nonetheless, an enormously rich and extensive fraction that will hopefully encourage people to learn more about him and if one is lucky enough to go" to Giverny.
In the courtyard outside the Victorian greenhouse, two immense water basins contain a plethora of water lilies.
Monet, who made a fortune during his lifetime, was constantly planting, replanting and redesigning his gardens. He would remove the water lilies in the winter so they would survive the cold and then replant them in the spring and summer.
"What's wonderful is to think of Monet literally as planting a still life because it is in the end the arrangement of those water lilies that he paints in his pictures. He is constructing his painting, at least part of his painting, as he replants the pond," Tucker said, adding that the job of one of Monet's gardeners was to dunk the lilies so that the pads would glisten.
Summer months will see yellow and orange blossoms of nasturtiums, and lavenders, lilies and geraniums will fill the conservancy. In September and October, they will be replaced with chrysanthemums, salvia, sunflowers, asters, sages, dahlias and other fall flowers.
Among the rare artifacts in the exhibition are two paintings of his garden executed by the artist 15 years apart.
"The Artist's Garden in Giverny," on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery, was painted around the year 1900 and shows his flower garden with a dense arrangement of irises and decorative trees.
"Irises," painted during World War I, is darker and moodier. On loan from a private Swiss collection and never before shown in the United States, it depicts a corner of the water garden that is replete with irises.
In a nearby glass case is one of Monet's paint-encrusted palettes, "a place where literally the hand and the eye come together and where that mysterious poetic moment of realization takes place," Tucker said. It's on loan from the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris.
There are also documents and personal correspondence that provide a rich sense of how the gardens were conceived and how they functioned in Monet's life and art. A digitalized version of one of Monet's sketchbooks reveals his propensity to draw before he set out to paint.
"We think of him almost exclusively as a painter so these sketchbooks reveal ... he would jot these pictorial ideas right in front of his motifs," Tucker said. "They provided a kind of touchstone for when he came back to the studio and began to organize the picture."
Hopefully, he said, visitors will come away from the exhibition "with a greater sense of how complex and inventive Monet was as an individual."
If You Go...
MONET'S GARDEN: Through Oct. 21 at the New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, 718-817-8700 or http://www.nybg.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults, $20; children 2-12, $8. By Metro North Commuter Railroad to the Botanical Garden stop on the Harlem Line, which runs from Grand Central through Westchester, or by subway, B, D or No. 4 train to Bedford Park Boulevard station, then walk eight blocks or take the Bx 26 bus east to the Mosholu Gate entrance.