Giverny and Malmaison

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Giverny and Malmaison

About 50 miles northwest of Paris near the town of Vernon on the Seine in Normandy. This is where Claude Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926. The gardens were laid out by Monet himself. Some people say that they are his greatest masterpiece. Restored at the end of the 70s, Giverny is now on the French national register of historic monuments. For lovers of Impressionism this is the ultimate place of pilgrimage.

The appeal or otherwise of Giverny is to a certain extent out of your hands. The crucial element here is how many groups of little French primary schoolchildren are scurrying around at your feet. If there are few or none the gardens of Giverny can be a delight; if many they can be a nightmare.

Claude Monet (1840 - 1926 b. Paris d. Giverny) Before arriving in Giverny you need to talk a little about Monet. He was the founding father of the Impressionist movement which grew up in Paris in the 1860s. Among his colleagues, at the beginning at least, were Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir. They were rejected by the artistic and critical establishment for unprofessionalism, accused of a lack of finish, fragmented dabbing brushstrokes, 'unrealistic' colours, obsession with the play of light to the detriment of good draughtsmanship. (The prevailing establishment wisdom at the time was in favour of a desperately old-fashioned style of 'history' painting consisting of appropriate subjects - historical, military, religious, in some way worthy - depicted with painstaking attention to detail and a certain matter-of-fact polish.) Accordingly Monet and his colleagues set up their own exhibition called the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863. Monet exhibited the painting "Impression, Sunrise" (stolen about 15 years ago from the Musée Marmottan in Paris). One critic said scornfully that the work was no more than an impression. The name stuck.

The most characteristic feature of Monet's output was painting in series. For him this was the best way to express his search for the fleeting or fugitive effects of light. Among the most famous series he did are those of Rouen Cathedral, a line of poplar trees, the haystacks, the Gare St. Lazare and the nymphéas or waterlilies from his garden at Giverny. By painting the same scenes at different times of day, in different seasons or under different skies he could best understand the colour effects of the changing light in his subjects. It is not the subjects themselves that matter so much as the light, the colour and the atmosphere that surrounds them. The essence of Monet's paintings is the momentary perception of his subjects.

Unlike his colleagues in the Impression movement of the 1860s and 70s Monet remained faithful to the ideas and techniques of Impressionism throughout his long life. His output was prodigious and he is represented in almost all the great museums of the world but Paris is still the ideal place to see his work. Downstairs in the Orangerie in the Jardins des Tuileries, the so-called "Sistine Chapel of Impressionism," are the huge oval-shaped murals of the nymphéas. These pieces are by no means the only waterlily representations he did but they are certainly the biggest and the most important. They were painted right at the end of his life when he was half blind. There are also very good Monet collections in the Musée Marmottan and the Musée d'Orsay.

The Visit  The bus will drop you off by the side of the road. After paying, you cross under the road to the water garden. This is the centrepiece of the visit. You wander round on your own through extraordinarily familiar views and sensations: the ponds, the green-painted Japanese bridge, the rhododendrons, wisteria, bamboo, weeping willows and most famously the waterlilies. May and June are probably the most beautiful months even though the waterlilies do not come into bloom until late July or August. There are three or four different paths. There is very little walking involved. It is absolutely not strenuous. After the water gardens you cross under the road again to the very colourful but less interesting flower garden with its rows of blooms heading upwards in diminishing perspective towards the house. If the house is open you should have a quick look There is not much of particular interest to see except for some original items of furniture, some family-related photos and letters, and Monet's important collection of Japanese prints. There are none of his paintings. Go through the gardens to Monet's old studio. This is now the compulsory, excellent and always crowded shop. As you leave there is a pleasant cafe just before the little narrow pathway that leads back to the main road and the bus.

Malmaison  In the event that Giverny is closed to the public (before April 1st), we substitute either a guided tour of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris or a visit to Malmaison in the afternoon of the Versailles excursion. You need allow no more than an hour. The bus parks right outside, you buy the tickets at the main entrance and go straight in. You must book in advance for an English-speaking guide. If nobody is available you'll have to translate a French one. Tours last about 30 minutes.

This was the home of Joséphine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon. She was born in 1763, married Bonaparte in 1796 and bought Malmaison the following year. This is where the couple were happiest. Between 1801 and 1802 it was as much the centre of French government as Paris itself. Malmaison remained Josephine's property after they divorced in 1809 (the reason given for the divorce was that she couldn't have children). She died here five years later and is buried in the grounds of the estate. Malmaison houses the musée de Napoléon. The C17 chateau itself is of no architectural interest from the exterior. It is really just a small private mansion. However, the council room inside and the veranda, in striking contrast, are decorated to look like the tent from Napoleon's military campaigns. Malmaison's interest lies in this and the other belongings and memorabilia of Napoleon and Josephine. There are clothes, writing implements, furniture, musical instruments, portraits, the bed on which Napoleon died, his death mask etc.

Love is a silly infatuation, depend upon it. Friendship is but a name. I love nobody.
-Napoleon
 

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