Well, I’ve heard of quite a few people disappointed by Giverny. Maybe they’d do better to buy this book and enjoy renderings of the original garden on the page. Or not..?
Anne Wareham, editor
Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. ~Claude Monet
Monet’s Garden in Art by Debra N. Mancoff. Publisher – Frances Lincoln reviewed by Paul Steer.
The beautifully simple cover of this paperback does promise much – I confess to being excited by being asked to review it – but I came to it with some pre-conceived ideas. I was expecting a book focused on how Monet created the gardens which influenced his art. Instead what we actually have here is another lovely coffee table book – a Sunday afternoon read – a potted visual history of his and other artists paintings in response to his gardens and artistic vision. There is one brief chapter on the restored garden of Giverny with attendant photograph and brief description of the layout.
It has an American bias – unsurprisingly considering the author Debra Mankoff is American and an art historian. She lectures in the US and the UK and is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Mankoff charts the involvement of American artists’ response to Monet’s work and his garden with a whole chapter dedicated to their painterly results. If your bent is gardening then you may not know that Monet was collected avidly by Americans – and in his later years made most of his money by selling to them. Monet was not an easy man to get on with but this account paints him in a more benevolent light (sorry for the pun) than many other accounts of his work.
This is not a gardener’s book – it contains very little in the way of horticultural information, it does however give a flavour of the kind of garden Monet developed and gives us clues to his vision by the insertion of quotes from Monet himself – I found these more informative than the sliced up details of his paintings reproduced in the book. He loved his garden both as a garden and as a retreat. Mankoff succeeds in getting the message over that the garden at Giverny was the calm and inspirational environment he needed for his observations of the effects of light and colour which motivated him all his life. Giverny grew in both size and in terms of its importance in his art.
For the gardeners reading this, we are told that he did buy lots of catalogues, ordered seeds and bulbs and read the latest books on horticulture. However, despite spending a lot of his income on the garden his manual input was limited – he employed 6 gardeners. This was an intensively cultivated garden, with planting schemes of colour filled beds being refreshed throughout the season.
It seems the world famous water lily paintings were only contemplated as paintings long after creating the ponds – his original motivation to plant water lilies was for “pure pleasure”. This hints at the fact that like all garden creators who fall in love with the process, his ideas developed over time and with much contemplation – “you don’t absorb a landscape in a day”.
If you like reproductions of art in books to flick through then this is for you – but like many reproductions the results are flat – nothing akin to seeing actual paint on canvas which I highly recommend. Nevertheless this book whets the appetite to re-visit work by the man who inadvertently gave ‘Impressionism’ to the world.
Monet’s work can seem saccharine but I think this is because it is so ubiquitous, especially in the printed format. As Mankoff suggests, Monet was a revolutionary and it is the chapters on Giverny and his major final work called Grandes Decorations that rekindles my interest in him. In these grand paintings of his water garden during which he struggled with fading eyesight, he envisioned them as an installation piece – so was way ahead of his time. He wanted the viewer to be surrounded by the experience of changing light and colour – an attempt to re-create the experience of a garden in a gallery.
Would I have bought this book? Probably yes because I am a sucker for anything garden and art related – but I would have been disappointed.
Mankoff in writing this book was attempting to show ‘how Monet’s endeavours as a gardener were part of his identity as a painter‘. But there is little evidence here of that particular endeavour – we are just given glimpses. I’m not sure this book achieves what it set out to do.
Paul Steer, artist.