Living in Monet’s Giverny

Living in Monet’s Giverny

Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected.

What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio, and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? 

For me, the connection  is meeting artists in the environment in which they work.  I get a sense of their connection to the place, and its history. As well as, learning what other artists who surrounded them. Ultimately ,I connect all that to who I am as an artist,  both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.


My Path to Monet and Giverny

There are ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny.

When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public.  But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.


It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated.

It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists:  Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.


Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.

Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up.

As it turns out, he made up precious little.  To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced.

What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.


Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.

Before Giverny, I made paintings based on images from Giotto, Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light.  What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.

Leslie Parke, "October Light", oil on canvas. Painting of waterlilies in Monet's pond in Giverny.

Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.

My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.


Monet’s Self-Portrait – NOT

Monet?, “Self-Portrait in his Atelier”, 1884

Monet self-portrait

Monet’s [Self] Portrait in question

In an earlier post [Is She or Isn’t She] I discussed whether or not a drawing attributed to Monet was actually by him. I thought that the drawing was by the minor Impressionist artist Helleu. Recently in an article in The Art Newspaper, “Monet’s favorite portrait of himself – but it is not by him,” Martin Bailey posits that the portrait that for years was thought to be a self-portrait by Monet is not by the artist at all, but by an unknown artist. And who are the likely suspects? As with the alleged Monet drawing, the name of John Singer Sargent, among others, is being circulated.

But here is the twist that interests me. Until recently, the painting was in the hands of Paulette Howard-Johnson, the daughter of Paul HELLEU! She died last year at the age of 104, and was the last person to have known Monet. She remembers seeing the painting in his bedroom at Giverny the last time she and her father visited Monet in 1925. She believed that Monet told her the painting was by Sargent. Why then, had Wildenstein, the author of Monet’s catalog raisonné, have it attributed to Monet. In the 1979 edition of the catalog, it was attributed to John Singer Sargent. In the 1994 edition, once the painting was owned by Wildenstein, it appeared as an authenticated Monet. Wildenstein may have had hopes of selling the painting, but was not able to obtain Monet prices for it.

When I inquired of the curator at the Clark about the provenance of the questionable Monet drawing, I was told, “Well, it’s in Wildenstein.”

I believe the drawing was by Helleu, but I was not sure if there was a connection between Monet and Helleu. Knowing now that he frequently visited Monet, makes it even easier to imagine how a Helleu drawing could get mixed up with Monet’s estate. And perhaps, in this case, too, Wildenstein had a hand in the misattribution.

But that doesn’t answer the question of who painted Monet’s portrait. There are clues in the painting itself. The landscape in the background is of a painting that Monet did while visiting Bordighera in 1884.


Monet, “Coastal Road at Cap Martin near Menton”, 1884

While in Bordighera he painted the portrait of an English artist. The identity of this artist was not known until recently. It is Arthur Alfred Burrington, who lived on the Riviera until his death in 1924.


Monet, “Portrait of an English Painter, Bordighera”, 1884

The portrait of Monet seems quite different from Burrington’s other work. But I like to imagine these two artists working face face to face on their two portraits with Burrington perhaps being infused with some of the master’s genius.


Painting by Burrington


Monet’s Epte River at Dawn

Monet- Arm of Seine

Claude Monet, “Arm of the Seine Near Giverny”

I like to travel to the other painter’s painting sites. Sometimes seeing the context in which the painting was made  gives me insight into the work.

When dealing with Monet, going to one of his painting sites may not be enough, unless you also happen to be there during the time of year and hour of day that he worked on his paintings.

And even then, there is much we can’t replicate now that Monet was observing in his time, such as the effects of the mini-Ice Age in the 1850s, the pollution from burning coal, and the atmospheric effects caused by the eruption of Kracatoa in 1883.

When I set out to see the Epte River near Giverny, I was at least determined to see it around the same time of day as Monet.

I woke up at  four in the morning and ran along the Rue de Roi until I came to  a turn off near the location of the old train station. The sun was just beginning to crest over the Colines (hills). I decided to follow the sun.

Sunrise, Giverny

Sunrise, Giverny

I found a path through the cow pastures. Soon I found a small shed by the river. If Monet was changing canvases every few minutes, I thought that it would be difficult for him to haul them every morning from his studio.

Could this be a shed that Monet used to store his canvases between painting sessions?

It is also possible that Monet painted his Epte paintings on his studio boat, which blows this theory.

Monet's Shed?

Monet’s Shed?

Around the corner from the shed, I came upon this view.

Leslie Parke, Epte River

Leslie Parke, “Epte River”, photograph


Claude Monet, "Arm of the Seine Near Giverny"

Claude Monet, “Arm of the Seine Near Giverny”


Epte River

Leslie Parke, “Epte River at Dawn”, photograph


Monet- Morning on Seine Clear Weather

Claude Monet, “Morning on Seine Clear Weather”

It seemed remarkably like the view in the paintings. I started to take pictures every few minutes. As I stood there several things about Monet’s  paintings revealed themselves.

I had never understood why the left side of his painting was so much lighter than the right. It seemed to me that it should more closely mirror the right side.

As I stood there I could see that as the sun rose on the left light poured though the trees and dissolved the appearance of the leaves into light. Monet was recording exactly what he was observing.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet


Leslie Parke Epte River Photograph

Leslie Parke, “Epte River”, photograph

I shot photo after photo as the light changed.

What became obvious was how quickly the light changed and how everything recorded in Monet’s series of  paintings of the Epte River basically transpired in an hour.

Each painting shows a phenomena that lasts no more than five minutes. Too fast for him to have recorded it in paint.

It is possible that Monet photographed the scene. He loved photography and housed a darkroom in his second studio. Such photographs could have only been in black and white and no such photos exist today.

However he accomplished these paintings, his power of perception  is unrivaled.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet



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