Another lovely coffee table book: Monet’s Garden in Art reviewed by Paul Steer

February 12, 2016

in Book Reviews, Reviews

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

Paul Steer:

Monet’s Garden in Art by Debra N. Mancoff. Publisher – Frances Lincoln reviewed by Paul Steer.

Monet's garden in Art cover, copyright 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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0916


Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0914


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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0922

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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0965

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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0959

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”.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0963

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0964

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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0910

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.

Copyright Paul Steer IMG_0941

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.

Paul Steer portrait



Letters to Monty blog

The Coal Tip Studio

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Charles Hawes February 14, 2016 at 6:01 pm

Paul has clearly studied and thought about Monet’s work before, so his comments are particularly useful as to what he was about. I wonder, though, about: “like all garden creators who fall in love with the process….”. If he had so many people working in the garden he doesn’t sound too, “hands on”. He sounds more a director of operations. It sounds more that what he fell in love with was not the process but the outcome. The garden and its plantings. Wasn’t it these that inspired him?

Paul Steer February 16, 2016 at 1:19 pm

To some degree that is true – but even a director of operations has to have a vision and would, I imagine, become as involved in the process and development of the ‘design’ as if he were hands on. Many contemporary artists employ other artists to make a work – including paintings under their guidance and direction.

I do wonder however, how that works – I for one like to get my hands dirty and feel my way through the process of making a painting or a garden . Mmm needs more thought.

Daphne Shackleton February 13, 2016 at 2:38 pm

Instead of buying this book and can get to London go see ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy. It is absolutely spectacular, from the start to the amazing finale, and I doubt ever again will such a collection of paintings be gathered together. Lots of inspiration for the gardener…….just ordered a load of Nasturtium seeds to scramble up supports in my ‘hot’ section.

Paul Steer February 13, 2016 at 4:12 pm

This review was written prior to my knowledge of the RA show – yes seeing paintings in the flesh is highly recommended !

Valerie Lapthorne February 13, 2016 at 10:03 am

Visited Giverny, just as it was to be restored in the 70s. It was obviously not open but we peered through the railings. It was winter and pouring with rain and not a flower in sight. Even though I have seen it since with car parks, visitors centre and the American Gallery, I treasure my winter preview. I have bought the book for that reason.

annewareham February 13, 2016 at 10:20 am

We all dream of creating such a mystique…. Xxx

Edward Flaherty February 13, 2016 at 9:27 am

I appreciate the work of authors and reviewers who try to reveal that ‘unmappable’ part of human internal existence that somehow, as in the paintings of Monet, channels something from plants, gardens and landscapes. The verb, to channel, itself has so many engineering denotations that it hurts. But there is a ‘channel’ to share an essence that humans can ‘magically’ grasp, in the presence of light, from individual plants, garden combinations and the landscape at large–‘magic’ that Monet grasped and painted. Monet struggled to communicate it. We all do. Isn’t that its magic, its beauty?

Isn’t that why gardeners go out in the garden every day? For a taste of that magic?

End of ramble. Thank you, Anne.

Paul Steer February 13, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Yes and yes !

James Golden February 12, 2016 at 1:51 pm

So I don’t think I’ll buy this book. It doesn’t seem to offer much I can’t find in many other places. Does the book say anything about that photo in black and white, with three bearded men in country garb, who are in such contrast to the four women dressed in white? That’s intriguing, and I would like to know who they are and what their vastly different physical manifestations say about the culture and time in which they lived. And how that relates to Monet.

Paul Steer February 12, 2016 at 6:32 pm

Seated in the foreground is the American Artist John Leslie Breck. Taken in Giverny in 1887. Breck is seen with Monet and his family – his wife Alice and his daughters and son. On extreme right is another American Artist Henry Fitch Taylor. The picture is used to illustrate the influence Monet had on American Artists at the time.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: