Gardens of France

Gardens of France

In early June I went to France to attend the opening of the American Impressionist Museum, next to the Claude Monet Museum at Giverny. Over one thousand invited guests sat down to a five-course dinner under a huge tend erected in an apple orchard. The tent had a wooden floor with holes cut out so the apple trees could poke trough into the dining area. One of my reasons for visiting France was to complete research for a new book entitled The Impressionist Garden, concerning the garden philosophies of all the great French and American Impressionist painters. One of my favorite personalities among the French Impressionists is Gustave Caillebotte, a wealthy art patron whose family owned a large estate at Yerres. From when Caillebotte was 12 until his twenties the property was a favorite motif, especially its park-like vistas and large walled vegetable garden. It was after painting the vegetable garden-with gardeners hauling heavy watering cans to water long lines of beans and lettuce-that Cailebotte develpled a fascination for compositions that show a strong sense of perspective, culminating in his two great masterpieces; The Floor Scrapers (1875) and Paris Street, Rainy Weather (1877).

I read in a book about Caillebotte that the family estate was now a municipal park, and that the vegetable garden had disappeared. The estate is close to Orly Airport so, after picking up a rental car, my companion and I drove to see it. I found the property badly neglected, with large fallen trees in need of removal, and the beautiful Italianate mansion in a dangerous state of disrepair. Remnants of a glorious past were evident-style gazebo, an elegant ornate steel bridge with rotted wooden treads (no longer safe to walk on), and decaying rustic wooden benches.

I walked over to where I knew I knew the vegetable garden should be and found a parking lot for municipal vehicles but the old wall was still intact. There were still cold frames along the walls that had been used to force early crops, but were now harboring a vigorous crop of weeds. As I walked around the wall I found the entrance to another walled area and inside a well-cared-for vegetable garden with long straight rows of lettuce and beans, exactly as Caillebotte had painted them. Here the cold frames were bursting with healthy vegetables, and I felt like an explorer who has just discovered the lost city of Atlantis.

My trip to France yielded other surprises. I had heard that Claude Monet cultivated an extensive vegetable garden quite separate from his famous Clos Normand flower garden and his water garden. All I knew was that it occupied more than two acres and was at the other end of the village, with its own head gardener who lived in a beautiful blue cottage. I found the Blue House intact (though privately owned), the walls still painted the same beautiful forget-me-not blue, and portions of vegetable gardens, still surviving.

When Monet moved to Giverny he attracted a lot of American painters, among them Michigan painters, among them Michigan-born Frederick Frieseke. He rented a cottage next door to Monet, and his wife planted a beautiful garden of almost an ace. Though Frieseke was influenced more by Renoir’s sensuous paintings of the female form, some of his most romantic compositions are of his vivacious doll faced wife admiring their exuberant flower garden. I was delighted to find that Americans had purchased the Frieseke property and completed a wonderful restoration of the garden.

Earlier in the year I had visited Cezanne’s restored garden at Aix-en-Provence, and also the Asylum of St. Paul, at nearby St. Remy, where van Gogh spent a year receiving treatment for mental disorders. In the asylum’s walled garden van Gogh painted some 26 canvases, and I was able to photograph portions of the garden little changed from the days when he painted there. I also visited nearby Arles, where van Gogh had cut off his ear after a falling-out with Gaugin, and found the hospital where he had received treatment. While convalescing in the hospital van Gogh painted its colorful courtyard garden and though now a museum, I found the hospital garden exactly as van Gogh painted it-even the background arches were the same yellow and blue.

After leaving St. Remy van Gogh moved to Arles and befriended a doctor who treated mental illness, Dr. Gachet. The doctor’s house and garden still exist (though privately owned). There’s a fine museum in Arles devoted to van Gogh, where you can pick up a map showing how to find many of the landscapes and gardens he painted.

I’d always been curious about Malmaison, the property near Arles where Napoleaon and his Empress, Josephine spent the happiest days of their lives. Josephine had established a beautiful rose garden at Malmaison, collecting all known species and hybrids, It was considered to valuable to botanical science that during the Napoleonic wars the British Navy had instructions not to impound shipments of rose plants destined for Josephine’s garden. I had read that the garden no longer existed but that plans were in hand to restore it. Even so I was interested, and found on the contrary that Josephine’s garden of roses still survives, the original design with pie shaped beds still clearly defined. What’s more, the roses were in full flower. The garden could use some attention and the addition of more varieties, but it was an uplifting feeling to find that anything of that tumultuous era had survived. Many of the plants were clearly labeled, and after making a list I discovered that most of them are available from several mail order house specialists in the United States. One in particular, The Antique Rose Emporium, Box 143, Brenham, Texas, 77833, publishes a beautiful full-color catalog, worth its $ 5 cost. The most beautiful rose garden I’ve ever seen is Bagatelle, in the Bois de Bologne, Paris. The climbing roses and clematis make it special-almost as exciting as the Orsay Museum.

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