BY CASEY LESSER
View of Monet’s water garden, Giverny, France. Photo © Eric Sander.
Each year, from late March to early November, more than 500,000 people travel to Giverny, France, to visit a place they’ve primarily seen in paintings.
They arrive to find a charming pink farmhouse with emerald-green shutters, set among brilliant flowerbeds that overflow with tulips, lavender, or sunflowers, depending on the season. They follow signs to a tunnel, and are led to an oasis of weeping willows and bamboo shoots, where they can amble along a pond packed with waterlilies, before crossing a familiar Japanese footbridge cloaked in wisteria.
More than just the idyllic inspiration and open-air studio behind some of the world’s most famous paintings, Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny have long been understood as a total work of art in their own right. (In 1907, Marcel Proust wrote in an essay that Giverny was a “transposition of art.”)
Today, the Impressionist master’s home and gardens—where he lived and worked for most of the second half of his life—are a site of pilgrimage for not just art lovers but botany buffs, sightseers, and wanderlust addicts alike. Recently, on July 10th, Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, announced that the site would be a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. That achievement is due in no small part to Gilbert Vahé, Giverny’s head gardener.
On a cool July afternoon, I met Vahé in Monet’s gardens. Slight and bespectacled, he wears a simple straw hat, polo shirt, and leather shoes. His fingernails, encrusted with earth, are the only clue that gives away his expertise—though shortly after we’re introduced, as we pass by hordes of visitors to reach a relatively quiet place to chat, he launches into a critique of some nearby irises.
Vahé has worked at the gardens for some 35 years, from 1977 to 2011—after which he retired temporarily—and since January 1, 2017. This year he resumed his position as head gardener after the departure of Englishman James Priest, who served in the role for the past six years. Vahé lives next door, where he keeps his own garden—which is a sight in itself, often stopping tourists in their tracks on their way to Monet’s home.
As we walk through the Clos Normand—the main garden beside Monet’s former home, which occupies nearly a hectare of land—we settle at a small, pebbled clearing, lined with three curved benches, which were designed by Monet.
Vahé’s post at Giverny began with the restoration of the gardens in 1977. While Michel Monet, the artist’s son, had left the property to Paris’s Académie des Beaux-Arts upon his death in 1966, with a view for it to become a museum, it went untouched for a decade. An initiative to revive the garden eventually materialized thanks to the French philanthropist and curator Gérald Van der Kemp, who is also known for spearheading the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, and who would go on to become the first director and curator of at Giverny. In 1970, he set up the Versailles Foundation in New York, which was backed by American patrons, and would also fund Giverny. But it was not until an auspicious meeting with Vahé that the gardens really began to take shape.
Vahé was born some 30 kilometers from Giverny, in a town southeast of Paris, and pursued a career in horticulture at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Horticulture in Versailles, with the intention of becoming an orchid specialist. He would ultimately set up his own landscaping business instead, and it was just after shuttering that venture—when he grew tired of dealing with finances and customers—that he was introduced to Van der Kemp. The head of the school in Versailles connected the two men, knowing that Vahé needed work and Van der Kemp was looking for a skilled horticulturist.
Vahé believes the job was his destiny, admitting that he never (“Jamais!”) imagined having such a job when he chose his field of study.
He recalls that at the time, in 1976, Monet’s gardens were largely unknown in France, save for intellectual circles; even in the nearest town of Vernon, just six kilometers away, shopkeepers were unaware that the famous artist had lived there. (Today, visitors arrive in throngs at the Vernon rail station, before making their way to Giverny.) Taxi drivers in New York, he quips, were more likely to know about Van der Kemp’s restoration.
The process of revitalizing the gardens was slow, spanning a long four years. Vahé worked alongside a team of fellow gardeners, including one who had worked alongside Monet himself, while Van der Kemp conducted research that would help to determine what should be planted and where. None of the plants from Monet’s time had survived, and the land was overgrown with grass and weeds. They took cues from the artist’s letters, oral accounts from relatives, photographs, and of course, paintings, to recreate the legendary garden that Monet had brought to life.
Though Van der Kemp was separated from the artist by several generations, Vahé notes that he was well-suited to lead the restoration. Van der Kemp was a painter and gardener himself, and he was well-connected, moving in circles in Paris that were not so far removed from those that Monet had engaged with decades earlier.
Monet had bought the farmhouse and its land in 1883, stumbling upon it while on a walk, and later permanently traded the avenues of Paris for the rolling hills of Normandy. After fitting the house to his needs—painting its walls in hues of blue and yellow, setting up a studio, and hanging it with his collection of Japanese prints—he turned to the gardens.
He cleared the land of trees, tilled the soil, and enlisted expert gardeners to help him make the most of the Normandy landscape, while introducing plants from as far away as Japan. He initially adopted the French gardening tastes of his day, though drawing from his artistic instincts, he would eventually develop a style all his own, carefully plotting out a geometric patchwork of flowerbeds, installing arches that would be enveloped in flora, and engineering moments of light and color that would occur throughout…….