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Monet's Green Thumb: How Art Grew From A Garden

Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France, draws half a million visitors a year, but for the next several months, you won't have to travel farther than the Bronx to get a taste of the artist's green thumb. The New York Botanical Garden has recreated Monet's horticultural work for an exhibit that includes photographs, videos, rare documents and two of the impressionist's paintings.

The New York garden is scaled down to be sure, but in some ways its abundance of flowers and colors makes it even more riotous than the original. You enter by stepping through a facade of Monet's house, with its salmon walls and green shutters, and out into a long corridor of flowers.

"When I walked in here, I thought, 'Wow,' " says 9-year-old Vanessa Calvo, who visited with her family. "I was speechless."

Mary Quintin says it was "like going into a paradise," and another visitor, Karen Rhodes, says she "just got goose bumps — just couldn't take it all in."

All these flowers, more than 150 species, will change as the exhibit runs through three seasons, from May 19 to Oct. 21. They've all been grown from seed by the conservatory's gardening team.

Claude Monet's <em>Irises</em> painting is making its U.S. debut at the New York Botanical Garden exhibit.
Claude Monet / Private collection. Switzerland
Claude Monet's <em>Irises</em> painting is making its U.S. debut at the New York Botanical Garden exhibit.

Todd Forrest, head of horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, says the goal is to capture the essence of Monet's garden, "the incredible, overpowering color and the sort of spirit of natural beauty that infused and informed his paintings. And we hope that visitors to the whole exhibition will leave understanding that Monet would never have been the painter he became if he wasn't the gardener he was."

The Trailblazing Gardener

Monet first rented his house at Giverny in 1883 and lived there until his death in 1926. In that time, he, his children and his stepchildren all worked in the garden. Eventually, he became wealthy enough to buy the house, buy more land and hire five gardeners to help out.

The exhibition also includes two original Monet paintings, both of flowers. One of the paintings, Irises, is darker in color and tone, and was painted during World War I. Film footage shows Monet wandering around his garden in 1915, his hat and huge beard dominating his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Also on display is Monet's painting palette, the only one in existence. But his garden was clearly another kind of palette.

Forrest says Monet was constantly tweaking, mixing different plants together for new results. There was even a special section he referred to as the "paint box" beds, where, according to Forrest, "he experimented with color combinations and texture combinations and height combinations kind of off the beaten path before he was happy enough with those combinations to include them in his garden."

According to Forrest, Monet was an early adopter when it came to incorporating wildflowers into his garden, so the conservatory has brilliant blue delphiniums, pink and white foxgloves, roses and poppies alongside varieties that you'd more likely find by the roadside, like mulleins.

'Monet Would Be Green With Envy'

Paul Hayes Tucker, a Monet expert and the exhibition's curator, says he thinks Monet would be pleased with the recreation, but also a little jealous.

"Monet would be green with envy, pink with envy, white with envy over what Todd and his team have been able to do," he says, "both in terms of the abundance of the flowers and their size and their color."

Tucker chose the two Monet paintings that complement the exhibit. He says the gardens, "defined [Monet]. They gave him life. They added kind of spiritual zest to his being and they obviously were absolutely central to his conceptions about art."

Just imagine what Monet's work — or his garden — would have been like without his beloved water lilies. Forrest heads to the outdoor pool where about 50 of his water lilies are just beginning to bloom. Some are the same type of water lily from the same nursery in France where Monet bought his.

The artist had first discovered colorful hybrid water lilies at the 1899 Paris World's Fair. After that, he became so fascinated by them that he painted them over and over.

"The gardens and the paintings were so inextricably wound in Monet's life and his work and his mind," Tucker says, "[that] the gardens themselves become like a living work of art — like a still life."

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