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 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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Is She or Isn’t She

Claude Monet, “Portrait of a Woman”. c 1890-1895. Red chalk and stumping, 285 x 210 mm. Private collection. W447

This red chalk drawing by Claude Monet was featured in the exhibition, “The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings” at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusettes ( 24 June – 16 September 2007). But I didn’t believe then, and don’t believe now, that the drawing is by Monet. And it seems that I am not the only one.

“There is one curiously anomalous drawing in the exhibition, a portrait of an attractive woman drawn in red chalk sometime between 1890 and 1895. It is made with the skill and sensitivity of an artist who, it would seem, really did possess considerable academic skill. It’s not known who the subject is, it is not associated with any known painting by Monet, and there is not another drawing like it in the Clark exhibition. It is signed Claude Monet, but one has to wonder, is it really?”  Ken Johnson, The Boston Globe, “Outside the Lines”  July 20th, 2007.

The issue of the drawing’s authenticity was brought up at a symposium on the exhibition. But it was quickly pointed out that neither the curators nor the Museum could possibly comment on the subject, since it was against their code of ethics to borrow a work of art with one identity and return it to the owner with that identity in doubt. Not only was it unethical, it might cost them and the Museum a great deal of money in damages. That being said, I sought out the person who raised doubts about the drawing and asked him who he thought did it.

I had been wondering about this drawing for years. Its elegance and “considerable academic skill” suggested John Singer Sargent to me, or perhaps his teacher Carolus-Duran. Both of those men knew Monet. If this is a drawing of Alice Hoschede, the wife of his patron Ernest Hoschede and later Monet’s second wife, the fact that Carolos-Duran lived near the Hoschede estate, château de Rottembourg, in Montgeron, made it possible both for him to do the drawing and for it to fall into Monet’s hands. Monet, you see, also lived on the estate, while he worked on a series of paintings for Ernest Hoschede — but that is another story.

Caolus-Duran, “Portrait of a Woman”

Carolus-Duran’s drawings seemed clumsy next to “the Monet”.

Sargent visited Monet in Giverny. But one look at Sargent’s drawings quickly dispelled any ideas of him as the author. Remarkably, his drawings show none of the refinement of this piece. His have all the panache of a Gibson girl illustration, but none of the subtlety of this drawing.

John Singer Sargent, “Woman”

With these two artists eliminated, I was anxious to hear who the “doubting curator” had in mind.  He said, “Helleu“. Paul Cesar Helleu was a society portrait artist, but he may be best known as the creator of the astrological ceiling decoration in New York’s Grand Central Station (1922). I knew Helleu mostly from the portrait of him by John Singer Sargent, “Paul Helleu: Sketching with his Wife.” So that is where I started my investigation. One look at this painting revealed much more than I expected. It not only gave me an idea of who Helleu was, but it seems to me that it also revealed the subject of our drawing! Look at the hat on Madame Helleu.

John Singer Sargent, “Paul Helleu: Sketching with his Wife”, oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 1/8, 1889

Helleu met Alice Louis Guerin in 1884, when she was fourteen years old and he was asked to do her portrait. He fell madly in love with her and married her two years later. He frequently used her as his model in etchings, pastels and paintings.

As soon as I saw the Sargent painting the figure of his wife jumped out at me, both for her hat and the way she appeared under it. It felt like the woman in the drawing. Could it be that while looking for Helleu I found the woman in the drawing? Was Helleu our mystery artist and his wife the model?

Paul Helleu, “Woman in Hat”

As  I scanned though drawings and etchings of women by Helleu I came upon “Woman in Hat”. That has got to be the same HAT! In other drawings you find a quality in his use of space, a frequent representation of women in hats, and perhaps  most strikingly, these beautiful, translucent eyes. One should compare the eyes:

Paul Helleu, "Study of a Young Woman's Head"

Paul Helleu, “Study of a Young Woman’s Head”

Paul Helleu?, “Madam Helleu in Hat”?????????

So, is she or isn’t she?

If you go:

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South Street, Williamstown, MA 01267  413.458.2303

Did you know?

Helleu is Elstir in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” [ A la recherche du temps perdu]

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Books Consulted:

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Let Them Eat Cake: I Don’t Think So

My friend Andrew loves to bake cakes. He is completely comfortable baking a cake without a recipe. So, when I called him and told him that I wanted to make a cake called “Vert-Vert” with green fondant fromMonet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet , he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. The cake called for, among other things:  pistachios, kirsch, 2 1/4 cups of butter, about 8 eggs, and spinach for coloring. We headed for Hannafords and about $50. later had our ingredients.

“Vert-Vert”, detail of photo by Jean-Bernard Naudin from “Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet”.

The cake was to be cooked in a single pan, sliced into three layers and filled with pistachio cream – thus the need for 2 1/4 cups of butter. Andrew, who is not known for his patience, decided he would “soften” the butter in the microwave. A few seconds later we had enough melted butter to cover all the artichokes in Castroville, California. If we were going to proceed we would have to go back to the store for another pound of butter. But first, the cake had finished baking and was ready to be pulled from the oven.

Andrew Ciccarelli with my painting of him.

The half pan of batter had baked into a half pan of cake. It didn’t rise. Instead it buckled and lifted from the pan like a ribbon. It also had a rubbery consistency. It was obvious that three layers could not be cut from this frisbee  sized hockey puck. Absolute, utter disaster!

One bite confirmed what our eyes already told us – this cake sucked.  And there was no way that the green coloring seeping  from the spinach was going to make the icing assume the luminous green glow that it had in the book. Khaki green fondant was not what I had in mind.

On top of that, we had already invited a friend we ran into at the grocery store to come over and sample the cake. Andrew and I agreed that the hockey puck, iced or not, was not going to be served.

Undeterred, Andrew emptied my cabinets and in under an hour produced a perfectly tasty chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache icing.

Andrew’s Cake

Later that year, when I had a chance to speak at the New England Culinary Institute about ” Monet and his Gardens in Giverny”, I challenged their students to produce the cake. I was happy to see, that while edible, it seemed nearly as squat and unspectacular as our version.

This is what happens when you are seduced by the color of a cake and have no feeling for its ingredients. Clearly, something was lost in translation.

Books Mentioned:

Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet

Text by Claire Joyes, Photographs by Jean-Bernard Naudin

If You Want to Try Your Luck:

Recipes of Claude Monet

Recipe that Andrew Recommends

If You Go:

Claude Monet Foundation

84 Rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny, FRANCE

Castroville Artichoke Festival

P.O. Box 1041, Castroville, California 95012. Tel (831) 633-2465 • Fax (831) 633-0485

New England Culinary Institute

56 College Street  Montpelier, VT 05602 – info@neci.edu877-223-6324

NECI has several great restaurants on campus.


Andrew is a master gardener and great cake baker living in Granville, New York.

Since Andrew makes up his recipes as he goes along and doesn’t write them down, I asked him to recommend a recipe for a cake that he loved.

Andrew’s Favorite Cake Recipe from Food and Wine Magazine:

Double-Chocolate Bundt Cake with Ganache Glaze

Recipe by Kate Neumann


    1. Vegetable oil spray
    2. 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
    3. 3/4 cup canola oil
    4. 1 cup sugar
    5. 1 large egg
    6. 2 cups all-purpose flour
    7. 1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
    8. 1 tablespoon baking soda
    9. 3/4 teaspoon salt
    10. 1 cup strong-brewed coffee
    11. 1 cup buttermilk
    12. 1/3 cup heavy cream
    13. 1/2 tablespoon corn syrup
    14. 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 12-cup Bundt pan with vegetable oil spray. In a small saucepan, melt 2 ounces of the chopped chocolate over low heat, stirring constantly. Scrape the chocolate into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Whisk in the oil and sugar until smooth, then whisk in the egg.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add half of the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture along with 1/2 cup of the coffee and 1/2 cup of the buttermilk; whisk until smooth. Add the remaining dry ingredients, coffee and buttermilk and whisk until smooth.
  3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Let the cake cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn it out and let cool completely.
  4. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. In a heatproof bowl, combine the remaining 3 ounces of chopped chocolate with the corn syrup and butter. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand until melted, about 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Let the ganache glaze cool until thick but still pourable, about 5 minutes.
  5. Pour the ganache over the cooled cake. Let the cake stand until the glaze is set, at least 30 minutes, before serving.

Make Ahead The glazed cake can be stored in an airtight container for 3 days.

Andrew with yet another great cake. Note the fleur de lis on his shirt!