By Stephanie Cowell
Claude Monet always wanted a garden, but his years as a struggling artist had seldom allowed it. He was forty-three years old and still rather poor when he first rented the house at Giverny. He had recently lost his beloved wife Camille. He moved in with his two sons, his new sweetheart Alice, and her children. Many years later he purchased additional land to create his water lily gardens. By then he had six gardeners and a great deal of money.
In the last twenty years of his life, Claude Monet cloistered himself inside Giverny and painted almost nothing else but his flower gardens. The deaths of his stepdaughter, Alice, and his older son Jean had wounded him; he had seen the horrors of the Great War and his eyesight was failing. I think he sought to find some peace and eternal truth in the reflections of clouds and willow tree branches in the water. Though he was a man who did not believe in God, many people find his paintings deeply spiritual.
He was eighty-six when he finished the last great paintings and died a few months later.
Slowly the gardens began to fall apart. His devoted stepdaughter Blanche remained in the house, retaining only one gardener. However, when she died in 1946, the property was inherited by Monet’s younger son Michel who neglected it. Rats infested the gardens; the lily pond shrank to a fetid pool, closing around the broken remains of the rotted Japanese bridge. The windows of the house were broken and three large trees grew in the studio. The earth took back everything.
It was only on Michel’s death that the Académie des Beaux-Arts began to restore the gardens as Monet had planned them. After several years of work, they were opened to the public; the directors expected perhaps a few thousand visitors a year. Today that number exceeds half a million.
When I visited there to research my Monet novel, I could almost imagine the old painter himself pushing through the crowds of tourists, murmuring, “Don’t trample the flowers, don’t trample the flowers.”
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.