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Monet's Green Thumb: How Art Grew From A Garden

Claude Monet observes his Giverny, France, garden from its Japanese footbridge in this 1922 colorized. (Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden)

Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France, draws half a million visitors a year, but for the next several months, you won't have to travel farther than the Bronx to get a taste of the artist's green thumb. The New York Botanical Garden has recreated Monet's horticultural work for an exhibit that includes photographs, videos, rare documents and two of the impressionist's paintings.

The New York garden is scaled down to be sure, but in some ways its abundance of flowers and colors makes it even more riotous than the original. You enter by stepping through a facade of Monet's house, with its salmon walls and green shutters, and out into a long corridor of flowers.

"When I walked in here, I thought, 'Wow,' " says 9-year-old Vanessa Calvo, who visited with her family. "I was speechless."

Mary Quintin says it was "like going into a paradise," and another visitor, Karen Rhodes, says she "just got goose bumps — just couldn't take it all in."

All these flowers, more than 150 species, will change as the exhibit runs through three seasons, from May 19 to Oct. 21. They've all been grown from seed by the conservatory's gardening team.

Todd Forrest, head of horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, says the goal is to capture the essence of Monet's garden, "the incredible, overpowering color and the sort of spirit of natural beauty that infused and informed his paintings. And we hope that visitors to the whole exhibition will leave understanding that Monet would never have been the painter he became if he wasn't the gardener he was."

The Trailblazing Gardener

Monet first rented his house at Giverny in 1883 and lived there until his death in 1926. In that time, he, his children and his stepchildren all worked in the garden. Eventually, he became wealthy enough to buy the house, buy more land and hire five gardeners to help out.

The exhibition also includes two original Monet paintings, both of flowers. One of the paintings, Irises, is darker in color and tone, and was painted during World War I. Film footage shows Monet wandering around his garden in 1915, his hat and huge beard dominating his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Also on display is Monet's painting palette, the only one in existence. But his garden was clearly another kind of palette.

Forrest says Monet was constantly tweaking, mixing different plants together for new results. There was even a special section he referred to as the "paint box" beds, where, according to Forrest, "he experimented with color combinations and texture combinations and height combinations kind of off the beaten path before he was happy enough with those combinations to include them in his garden."

According to Forrest, Monet was an early adopter when it came to incorporating wildflowers into his garden, so the conservatory has brilliant blue delphiniums, pink and white foxgloves, roses and poppies alongside varieties that you'd more likely find by the roadside, like mulleins.

'Monet Would Be Green With Envy'

Paul Hayes Tucker, a Monet expert and the exhibition's curator, says he thinks Monet would be pleased with the recreation, but also a little jealous.

"Monet would be green with envy, pink with envy, white with envy over what Todd and his team have been able to do," he says, "both in terms of the abundance of the flowers and their size and their color."

Tucker chose the two Monet paintings that complement the exhibit. He says the gardens, "defined [Monet]. They gave him life. They added kind of spiritual zest to his being and they obviously were absolutely central to his conceptions about art."

Just imagine what Monet's work — or his garden — would have been like without his beloved water lilies. Forrest heads to the outdoor pool where about 50 of his water lilies are just beginning to bloom. Some are the same type of water lily from the same nursery in France where Monet bought his.

The artist had first discovered colorful hybrid water lilies at the 1899 Paris World's Fair. After that, he became so fascinated by them that he painted them over and over.

"The gardens and the paintings were so inextricably wound in Monet's life and his work and his mind," Tucker says, "[that] the gardens themselves become like a living work of art — like a still life."

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More Photos

The Japanese footbridge from Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France, has been recreated inside ...

Just outside the New York Botanical Garden's conservatory, water lilies — some purchased from the...

This 1922 colorized photograph shows Monet on the original Japanese footbridge in Giverny.

...

Monet works on one of his many water lily paintings in his studio at Giverny in 1920.

The New York exhibit's flowers will change as the show runs through spring, summer and fall.

The Artist's Garden in Giverny is one of the two Monet paintings on display at the New Y...

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny in France draws half a million visitors every year. And now, Americans will get their chance to enjoy the serenity of that scene. The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, is bringing together an exhibit that recreates the garden Monet so loved, along with photographs, videos, rare documents and two of Monet's paintings.

Here's NPR's Margot Adler.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Whether or not you have ever experienced Claude Monet's garden in France, in Giverny, if you walk into the recreation at the New York Botanical Garden, prepare to be stunned. Scaled down to be sure, but in some ways even more riotous in its abundance of flowers and colors.

You step through the portal, through a facade of Monet's house with its salmon-colored walls and green shutters, out into a long corridor of flowers.

VANESSA CALVO: When I walked in here, I thought, wow.

ADLER: Nine-year-old Vanessa Calvo and adults Mary Quinton and Karen Rhodes.

CALVO: I was speechless.

MARY QUINTON: Like going into a paradise, really beautiful.

KAREN RHODES: Oh, just got goose bumps.

ADLER: All these flowers - more than 150 species, which will change as the exhibit runs through three seasons - have been grown from seed by the gardening team at the New York Botanical Garden. Todd Forrest, head of horticulture, says the goal is to capture the essence of Monet's garden.

TODD FORREST: The incredible, overpowering color and the spirit of natural beauty that infused and informed his paintings, we hope that visitors to the whole exhibition will leave understanding that Monet would never have been the painter he became if he wasn't the gardener he was.

ADLER: Monet rented the house in Giverny in 1883 and lived there until his death in 1926. He, his children, and stepchildren worked in the garden, and eventually, as he became wealthy and bought the house and more land, he hired five gardeners.

The exhibition includes two paintings of flowers, one early and one never before shown in the States - darker in color and tone, painted during the First World War. There's also his artist's palette of colors, the only one in existence. But clearly his garden was another palette. Forest says Monet was constantly tweaking his garden, experimenting with plants, there was even a part of the garden he called paint box beds.

FORREST: Where he experimented with color combinations, and texture and height combinations, kind of off the beaten path, before he was happy enough with those combinations to include them in his garden.

ADLER: Oh, my heavens.

FORREST: Lupines.

ADLER: Ah, but these are lupines not like you see anywhere.

FORREST: We've been growing these plants, in some cases, for a year or more. And we've been preparing for the exhibition for the past two years

ADLER: Brilliant blue delphiniums, pink and white fox glove, roses and poppies. Mixed with wildflowers, one of Monet's innovations, like Mullein you might find by the roadside. Forrest thinks Monet would be pleased with this recreation, but also a little envious, since here every spring flower seems to be blooming at once.

Paul Hayes Tucker is a Monet expert and curator of this exhibition.

PAUL HAYES TUCKER: Monet would be green with envy, pink with envy, white with envy, over what Todd and his team have been able to do, both in terms of the abundance of the flowers and their size and their color.

ADLER: Tucker chose the two paintings that you can see in a separate gallery. The gardens, he says...

TUCKER: They defined him. They gave him life. They added spiritual zest to his being. And they obviously were absolutely central to his conceptions about art.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

ADLER: There wouldn't be a Monet's garden without the water lilies. Todd Forrest shows me the outdoor pool where they're just beginning to bloom. Some are the same types from the same nursery in France where Monet went. Monet first saw colorful hybrid water lilies at the 1899 Paris World's Fair.

There must be at least 15 or 20 different types of water lilies.

FORREST: More like 50 on display in this pool alone.

ADLER: Monet painted the water lilies over and over. Paul Hayes Tucker says the gardens are a living work of art, like a still life.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

GREENE: And you can see pictures of Monet's Garden in the Bronx at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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