Monet across the pond

If any readers still kid themselves that gardening is not an art, go to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and think again. A quarter of a million visitors are packing in to the garden’s triumphant show on the theme of Monet’s Garden, open until October 21. In the torrid heat of midday, I gazed into the big pools of flowering lotus and water lilies and asked the garden’s celebrated president, Gregory Long, why he had majored on Monet. “He is not a painter who happened to have a garden,” he replied; “the garden was integral to his art. And that is much more interesting.”

Monet himself remarked that “my most beautiful work of art is my garden”. In 1883 he bought the house and first parcels of land round Giverny, the scene of his bold experiments with colour-planting and the lake of water lilies which he made famous until his death in 1926. “It took me a long time to understand my water lilies,” Monet wrote, having begun to grow them when he was already 53. “I had planted them for pure pleasure, without thinking of painting them ... and then, all of a sudden I took up my palette and since then I’ve had no other model.” He was still painting them when aged 86. Even now water lilies float on the surface of Giverny’s lake, restored, like the garden, since 1978.

But it is in New York that you see them in closer focus: 58 different varieties in the Botanical Garden’s Hardy Pool and 35, which Monet would envy, in the Tropical Pool, whose warmer conditions could not be replicated at Giverny. Eight of these tropicals flower only at nightfall. They would have been such a fascinating challenge to Monet’s eye if he had been able to grow them in France.

The Hardy Pool at NYBG

Monet’s garden, like the New York show, is the result of a unique congruence of innovations. By 1879, a French farmer and lawyer-turned-plant-breeder, Joseph Latour-Marliac, had begun to breed new colours and qualities into hardy water lilies, until then best known for only two species. In 1889 his display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris amazed the French crowds, of whom Monet was one. The famous English gardener William Robinson, who covered the show as a gardening columnist, was so impressed that he hunted their breeder down to his nursery near Bordeaux. His experimental ponds and varieties still survive there, as I reported with delight a few years ago for the FT. “I found a very simple straight sort of man,” Robinson recalled. It had taken him 10 years to get results. He even told Robinson that water lilies are now for everyone because, “like the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, they content themselves in a tub”.

Monet was already a passionate collector of flowering plants. At Giverny he had arranged them in a style far removed from the formal bedding which still looks so quaint in French seaside towns. He had installed scores of free-growing irises and peonies, chrysanthemums, dahlias and roses. He had the brilliant idea of growing dozens of long-stemmed nasturtiums to trail in late summer under the rose-covered arches of his Grand Alley. Two years ago, in a bistro in South Kensington I observed to the New York Botanical Garden’s vice-president of horticulture, Todd Forrest, that Monet had also planted long thin beds which he called his “paintbox beds”. Their flower-colours were limited and plants in the centre were banked up to give greater height. In the New York show the “paintbox” idea has been wittily adapted into big wooden “boxes”, painted to a Giverny shade of green-blue, and filled with tall and low bedding plants of carefully themed colours, like tubes of paint. New Yorkers have been noting down the contents to copy them in their yards next year.

A colourised photo of Monet, c1922

Monet was an avid reader of the new wave of gardening columns from the 1870s onwards. He even read articles by the queen bee of the English flower garden, Gertrude Jekyll. Black-and-white photos have immortalised his seemingly rustic appearance in his garden, showing him with belted trousers and a heavy beard. In fact his shoes were handmade for him by London shoemakers.

Into the taste of the 1880s came a new wave of prints and arts from Japan which fascinated him too. His lake of water lilies was to be viewed from a two-storeyed bridge, which he clothed with Japanese wisterias and framed by weeping willows. The lines can be traced fascinatingly to prints by the Japanese artist Hiroshige which Monet saw in Paris. From Japanese art he said that he “learned to evoke presence by means of shadow”. However, he also pointed out how much he had invented, including the water lilies and the colour of the bridge. Justly he described it as a “genre japonais”, no more.

A path of irises in the gardens of Giverny. Elizabeth Murray’s Giverny photos are part of the NYBG exhibition

The New York show has rightly taken a similar line. The Botanical Garden is unique in America for having a long “grand alley” under glass, which is ideal for evoking the mood of historically attested planting. It has been set with replicas of Monet’s famous green-painted rose arches. It leads to a circular display space, which houses a replica of the Giverny bridge and its willows and wisteria. Outside this huge glasshouse, the garden even has the good luck of two big rectangular pools. They have been replanted with Latour-Marliac lilies and lotusses. The flowers are linked with poster-displays of flower-poems by French Symbolists, especially Mallarmé, Monet’s admirer, who developed Impressionist principles in their verse. The laudable aim is to restore gardening to its potent relationship with sister arts in the culture around horticulture.

Claude Monet’s ‘Irises’ (1914-17)

The flower show ties in brilliantly with a special app link to the garden and the Met Museum, showing Monet’s paintings beside the exact flower-varieties he was representing. The garden’s library links in with a fine exhibition, curated by the Monet expert Paul Tucker. The centrepieces are two loaned Monet paintings of irises in his garden, one early, one late which refutes the idea that Monet’s art deteriorated into smudgy brown-red as his eyesight faded. Replicas of Monet’s manuscript notes are shown with his plant-orders to Latour-Marliac and even his requests for ever-elusive planning permission. The locals bitterly opposed his request to widen the river into art’s most famous lake. They thought his plants would poison their water supply.

Unlike other Botanical Gardens, the NYBG now has back-up greenhouses which can sustain such a show across five hot months. Sixty thousand plants have been prepared from 600 families attested in Monet’s plantings. The display has already shifted from spectacular delphiniums and verbascums in its opening phase to the best new forms of gold-yellow sunflowers and pale blue agapanthus. A tour de force of dahlias is waiting for a Monet autumn.

I stood with the genius of all this planting, Francesca Coelho, and felt decidedly emotional at the soft beauty she had devised in Monet’s manner. 2012 is her 30th year at the NYBG, having left her native Trinidad. “Do you paint?” I asked her. “Only in my mind,” she answered. She carries a vision from week to week and sustains it by her early morning prowl round the entire display, beginning daily at 6am.

Summer flowers at NYBG recreate the gardens of Giverny

How can we have similar lily and lotus ponds of our own? “You have to go in,” Coelho warned me with the practical calm which is her hallmark. She goes into the ponds every 10 days, clearing each detail and giving big Agriform food tablets to each lotus in its circular container. By varying the depth of planting of each tropical lily, she has found that she can influence its time of flowering.

In her water-pools she has a secret which was denied to Monet’s big lake. She uses black dye in the water to intensify the reflections. “I became infatuated with light and reflection,” Monet told an art critic. “And there you have it, the way I ruined my career.” His eye would have loved Coelho’s darkened water and against it the amazing lotuses which he never managed to flower. “He should have come over to Florida and seen happy lotuses,” Long told me with a smile, “and had a change from northern France.” The rest of us can go to the Bronx and enjoy the NYBG’s admirable take on the garden which is so profoundly embedded in western art.

The show’s excellent app, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, is available via the garden’s website The show’s principal sponsor is Met Life

Robin Lane Fox was a guest of the New York Botanical Garden

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