Most people who know something about Impressionist art know that Claude Monet liked to paint flowers. What they may not know is that he was also a passionate gardener who drew boundless inspiration from what he grew.
Monet’s extraordinary gardens can still be seen at his home in Giverny, France, where they have lovingly been restored through the past few decades in celebration of the painter’s life and work. This is the place that inspired Monterey, California, author and artist Elizabeth Murray, who photographed and wrote about them 20 years ago in her book “Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insights from the Painter’s Gardens.”
Now, a completely revised 20th anniversary edition of “Monet’s Passion” (Pomegranate Communications, $35) has been published, with all-new photographs, text, and plans based on the famous gardens.
Revising the book was Murray’s idea, since over the past two decades she has never stopped examining Monet’s gardens and life. She told her publisher, “I think I can do a much better book.”
“I wanted to put so much into the book, about the preservation of beauty, and sustainability, and what creates sanctuary and stability in your heart,” said Murray, relaxing on a recent sunny day in her own garden. “These are the things I care about and wanted to weave in.”
Murray’s deep connection with Monet began in 1984 when she visited Giverny on a trip through Europe. A professional gardener and artist, Murray was immediately enraptured with the gardens. “In short, I had fallen in love,” she writes in the book’s introduction.
She returned home and promptly quit her job – she was head gardener for a family estate in Pebble Beach – and packed up her belongings. She returned to Giverny and would stay there for nine months, first to learn French, and then to work in Monet’s gardens, which were in the process of being restored after decades of neglect.
Because she offered her services for free, “the curators were thrilled,” said Murray. As for the gardeners there – well, not so much. They viewed her as a bourgeois American, and further suspect because she was female.
“They thought, ‘We’ll work her real hard and she’ll give up,'” recalls Murray, who of course did not.
She was too busy drinking in the beauty of the place where Monet spent 46 years of his life and created some of his most famous paintings.
In 1883, Monet came to Giverny looking for a home. His wife had died of tuberculosis and he was raising his two sons with the help of a family friend, Alice Hoschede, who had six children of her own. Short of money and anxious for a spot with room enough for all, he happened upon the house and property there and realized it was perfect.
Murray said that Monet always loved flowers and planted them wherever he lived, but he was able to really indulge himself at Giverny. With almost three acres at his disposal, he would work and rework the garden plan, adding the distinctive features that would become familiar in his paintings: the water lily pond, Japanese footbridge, and trellises and arches covered with climbing roses.
Murray is especially fascinated by Monet’s approach to color, something that he could experiment with in the garden and then translate to canvas. In addition to roses, the painter was fond of tulips, tree peonies, bearded iris, cactus dahlias, sunflowers, hollyhocks, foxglove and delphiniums, among many others.
He would paint more than 500 canvases before his death in 1926, many based on his gardens.
Following the artist’s death, the house and gardens passed to Monet’s son, Michel, who died in 1966. The house and gardens were then donated to France’s Academie des Beaux-Arts but fell into disrepair for lack of funds. Money was raised in the United States and Frances for their restoration, and it would take another few years before the gardens were opened to the public. Today, some 500,000 visitors come there annually.
Spending time in the artist’s gardens changed Murray’s life forever. She eventually returned to California and began publishing calendars using her photos of Monet’s gardens. From there she segued into writing books, and so “Monet’s Passion” was born.
The book would go on to sell more than 200,000 copies.
Since then, Murray has written numerous books on gardening and art, including “Painterly Photography: Awakening the Artist Within” and “Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul.” Her paintings are housed in private and public collections, including San Francisco’s De Young Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
She also designs gardens as healing spaces and teaches classes on photography, painting, and flowers.
Murray also continues to go back to Monet’s gardens – every year for the past 25 years – where she photographs them and continues to draw new inspiration from their beauty.
Her revised “Monet’s Passion” has “more information and a lot more depth” than the original, she said.
The book now includes not just a history and analysis of the gardens, but also a look at Monet’s color combinations and techniques, both in gardening and painting.
There is also practical advice for gardeners. In a section called “Bringing Giverny Home,” there are detailed garden plans that can be applied anywhere. There’s also a list of the plants originally used by Monet, and tips on plant selection, garden planning and features like Monet’s.
One thing that gardeners can do is pay more attention to color, said Murray.
“It’s much easier for people to start with a color palette, to think about what colors will complement their house,” she said. “You have to think about what goes with your rooms and what makes you happy.”
Murray said that it’s not necessary to copy Monet’s garden precisely, but to learn about color, rather than specific plants. In the name of sustainability, she urges people in this area to plant drought-tolerant species.
“You can have a lot of beauty without using a lot of water if you carefully plan it,” she said.