The gardener who made Monet’s paintings green

‘The garden of Monet à Giverny: historie d’une renaissance’. That is the title. It is very appropriate given the history of that place. Monet, said, belatedly discovered his great passion for floriculture. It was when he settled in Giverny. The garden was to be the ‘model’ that would pose nude for some of her most celebrated works and she applied herself with such dedication in that work that, at the time, she even put the peasants of the area on the warpath.Since Monet imported dozens of exotic plants to achieve the desired effect and farmers feared that those seeds would end up invading their crops.

Claude Monet, now an old man, in the garden of Giverny, with the famous Japanese bridge in the background. Etienne Clementel

On the painter’s death, however, the decadence began to wither away all that beauty that had been captured in paintings that, over the years, would have a meteoric rise. ‘Water Lily Pond’, for example, it was auctioned in 2008 by 51.6 million euros at Christie’s in London. It is the highest amount paid to date for a ‘monet’, not only painted in Giverny, but, which has its what, when the artist was already suffering from advanced blindness.

A pond with water lilies and the Japanese bridge in the background, after four decades of care at the hands of Gilbert Vahé. Bertrand guay

The point is that in 1974, after several real estate vicissitudes, the Academy of Fine Arts set out to rescue from its worrying abandonment that place that Monet’s son had not known how to pamper and first commissioned the plant resurrection, based on his curriculum, to Gérald van Der Kemp, who years before had already worked that miracle at Versailles. A then very young Vahé joined the team captained by Der Kemp in 1976. I thought it was going to be a temp job, a year at most, and yet it took root. Until 2018.

During all this time, a lifetime, working at the very least, Vahé could be said to have been Monet or, as Harper Lee put it in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, he wore his shoes and walked with them through the gardens of Giverny, which is the only way, according to the writer, to truly know someone. The work was thankless at first, removing brush and felling dead trees, a shame, but later, in what was surely an immense pleasure, the task was to model Monet’s own paintings and bring them to life. From nature to painting and from painting to nature. It is a beautiful story capicúa.

‘Water lilies’, one of the different versions that Monet dedicated to this aquatic plant, of which he ended up being a seasoned floriculturist. Musee d’Orsay

Following in Monet’s footsteps as a gardener has provided Vahé with an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora of Impressionism, which he boasts, with deserved right, in the book. The garden, as the painter conceived it, is actually a calendar of the passing of the seasons, but with an unprecedented chromatic richness. In his eagerness, Vahé has managed to bring together in perfect harmony 58 different varieties of roses, but, given an iconic flower of that pictorial period, in addition to the water lilies and the cherry blossoms, what better than the dahlia, a species native to Central America and that in its day already captivated the first Spanish explorers who entered in the New World. A certain weakness of the gardener for dahlias could be assumed, given the extensive chapter that he dedicates to their cultivation and care, because if the water lilies are demanding, these explosions of tropicality are not far behind if they are to grow in cold Norman France.

Monet’s home in Giverny, in which Vahé has managed to collect up to 58 different varieties of roses. Bertrand guay

Monet was, in addition to the accidental father of the term impressionism (in 1873 he baptized one of his works as ‘Impression, rising sun’, a name that made a fortune and was adopted as the watchword of the renovating movement in which Renoir, Cezánne, Degas, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Sisley), a prolific painter, so much so that it is not surprising that a representative sample of his best works was done literally without leaving home. His plot in Giverny is the one that appears, as well as in ‘Le bassin aux nimphéas’ from the Christie’s auction, in ‘Chemin de roses’ and in ‘Le jardin de l’artiste’. They are paintings, thanks to Gilbert Vahé ‘, which can be visited.


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