It’s already August and we are well into holiday season, which inevitably turns thoughts to other years, other holidays…not least when the inspiration they provided is only now turning into the fruit of another year’s paintings. Having very recently completed a group of five canvases entitled ‘The Giverny Series‘, this is most certainly true of last year’s August travels.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was lucky enough to spend five days in Paris. Since we were traveling to Alsace by train, for a week’s holiday in Riquewihr, involving a train-change in the French capital, the temptation to stop off for a few days in one of my very favourite places was too much to ignore. With a few tweaks to our plans, we were able to elongate our time away and spend five memorable days in the city that never wears thin.
Knowing Paris reasonably well, we had the first few days fairly thoroughly mapped out with all the places on our wish list, plus a comfortable day to spare; and then I did something totally uncharacteristic for me…and booked us onto a tour.
Now, tours really aren’t my thing at all. Conjuring up mental images of unenthused tourists snaking through basilicas and following disembodied umbrellas across piazzas on sweltering hot afternoons, the very words ‘guided tour’ give me shudders. Yet, grazing the internet to plan where we wanted to visit in and around Paris, my eye landed on something a bit different and it caught my attention straightaway, for a couple of reasons.
I’d wanted to visit Monet’s house and garden at Giverny for (well) ever, plus as we were staying in the lovely (very bohemian, slightly madcap) Hotel Joyce in the ninth arrondissement, we were within easy walking distance of Saint-Lazare railway station (a subject painted eleven times by Monet); another big tick in favour of my Monet excursion since trains to the nearby town of Vernon run from there. Still put off by the challenge of working out the right train, then the taxi, bus or hour’s walk to the garden and the likelihood of a massive tourist turn-out in the August heat, I nearly talked myself out of the idea, telling myself we would find our way to Giverny another year, preferably in the relative cool (and all the spring blossom) of April or May.
Then I came across Fat Tire Tours, who operate various tours in and around Paris (and other cities)…on bike! Having recently garnered a new enthusiasm for cycling, along with my daughter – our bikes freshly taken out of their cobwebs for what had been a few rides around the country lanes where we live – I could see how capitalising on this new enthusiasm could make a trip to Giverny seem more appealing to those in my family who are somewhat less enamored with Monet than I and it sounded like it might be, well, quite a lot of fun to arrive there on a funny red or blue bicycle.
The tour was duly booked and we breakfasted extra early on the Friday morning, setting off to the station with small rucksacks and a certain amount of nervous anticipation, hoping this would be at least nearly as fun as the website had made it sound. Gathered with our Fat Tire guides at the end of the platform, staring up into the (no longer steam-filled) glass ceiling of the railway station immortalised by Monet in another of those postcard-paintings that had been stuck to the wall by my bed as a teenager (above), we began to ease into the situation, reassured by the friendly-seeming and nationality-diverse group that was steadily congregating as the departure time approached.
I’ve never been one for writing wishful destinations on an actual list but what quickly became apparent was that cycling to Giverny was like ticking something very significant indeed off the bucket list I never knew I had. It felt like stepping into one of these experiences you just know you will never forget and will dredge up in nostalgia-fueled dinner conversations for years to come, along with some of those other more-memorable-than-average travel adventures that only become more treasured with every re-telling.
If I’d ever been aware that I had such a bucket list then, of course, catching a train from ‘Monet’s’ station to the small Normandy town of Vernon would have been on it. So, too, would the hilarity of getting to choose a brilliantly vintage-looking red bicycle with a name (yes, they all have names) before being sent off, like so many giggling school children on a school languages trip, to practice using our pigeon-French to buy food supplies in the local boulangerie, patisserie and supermarché of that small town…. then cycling through the medieval town, stopping to admire the church, and along the Seine to stop by an ancient watermill for a picnic of cheese and fresh tomatoes, tearing soft fresh baguettes with our hands and carefully lifting delicious tartes aux fruits covered in strawberries and kiwi from their patisserie wrappings, and all washed down by Normandy cidre. Of course, all of this would have been on such a bucket list!
No less would the experience of then cycling along a traffic-free route made out of what was once an old railway line and, newly relaxed and giggly from all the sunshine and chit-chat (not to mention cider) of our lunch, engaging in highly infantile, extremely satisfying, family races to ‘get there first’ (I won).
‘There’, of course, being the world-famous garden and Monet’s house at Giverny!
They were both predictably sublime, if extremely crowded given the time of year. It was impossible not to drift off in a reverie of how wonderful it would all be out of busiest tourist season or, better still, to have the place completely to myself; to set out my folding chair and my easel just as the morning mists lift off the water, as Monet must have done countless times…
Yet the endless snake of tourists filling every brief gap between the trees just as I got my shot lined up actually did me a huge favour – it made me focus my eyes, and my lens, on the surface of the water; exactly where Monet’s own focus must have been for the twenty or so years that he painted it.
Wondering if our allotted time would be enough, we started at the famous pond with its waterlilies and bridges, then continued into the rest of the garden, past sunflowers and turkeys and through such dazzling vividness in the planting scheme that it was only just outdone by the juxtaposition of the jade-green windows and shutters of the house surrounded by the most marvelously clashing sea of brightest orange-red geraniums – this was no place for shirking colour!
We finished with the inside of the house, took a look around the large shop and still had time to spare to just sit on a bench and watch the world go by before it was time to reconvene with our party and the bikes.
By now, an easy camaraderie had taken shape with the rest of the group and though our time at the garden had been entirely ‘free’ and unstructured, we had all passed each other many times as we wove our way around, acknowledging each other with friendly waves and smiles. This friendly informality extended easily to our guide Kit (a practicing artist himself), who was chatty, thought-provoking and informative to just the right degree, during the parts of the day when he was with us, in a way that made the time go swimmingly for arty-types and equally well for those with much less interest in Monet or his place in art history.
What really showed Kit to greatest advantage, on the return cycle back to Vernon, was that one of the group had a significant puncture (the cartoon kind where the rubber goes flat as a pancake in a matter of seconds) and, quickly assessing this to be too far gone to repair en route, he swapped bikes without a moment’s hesitation. He then cycled what must have been at least a couple of miles, against the considerable resistance of a dragging rear wheel that was down to the metal, in the extremely hot afternoon sun, whilst still keeping the group rallied and well-organised from the rear – quite a feat all round and testament to a far fitter pair of cycling legs than I currently have!
Much as it had been on the way there, the train carriage was filled with lighthearted chat and joie de vive; perhaps even more so than on the outward journey, filled to the brim as we were with sunshine and laughter and Monet’s wonderful garden. There was also quite a bit of tiredness thrown in and a general consensus that we were all thoroughly looking forward to a beer / glass of wine and very much FOOD after our exertions.
For our own part, it was a case of grabbing a quick shower and heading straight out for a pizza at the restaurant that was (thankfully) just a few steps away from our hotel on what was to be our last evening in Paris before continuing on to Alsace. Tired as we were, we were in extremely high spirits – Paris had been wonderful and Giverny had exceeded all of our expectations and that was, in no small part, because of our mode of getting there – by bike! It was easy to imagine that the experience could have been very different indeed if we had simply piled out of a hot tour coach into those same gardens, as we saw so many people doing, and it is the memory of cycling along the Seine, of that picnic and whizzing past all those Normandy hedgerows, ringing bicycle bells and throwing our heads back in raucous laughter that has lived on most vividly for this past few months and will, no doubt, continue to do so for a very long time.
So, a full ten out of ten as a tourist but how did Giverny inspire me as an artist?
When I visited Giverny, the painter in me hardly considered whether it was my intention to paint what I saw, though I took countless photographs when I was there and you just have to look at my most recent work to see that garden and water-themes have dominated my output over the past twelve months. I’ve certainly painted well-known and artist-related gardens before: West Green garden in Hampshire and the garden of Charleston Farmhouse (home to the Bloomsbury set) in Sussex amongst them. Even then, its something I always hesitate to do as the inevitable invitation to comparison that this sends out to the world, when the garden has been immortalised by one or maybe even several ‘well-known’ artists, can be extremely off-putting and make the attempt seem a little cliché.
Painting Giverny was something I came back to, as the tiniest germ of an idea, when I started processing my way through the numerous photographs I’d taken (which wasn’t until the Spring of this year). To start with, painting these views seemed unlikely; the lighting was all wrong and none of the photographs had the kind of subtlety or sudden radiance against dark that I love to work with; August light, in the middle of a very bright and sunny day is, usually, the very last thing I would work from…even without all the people that were walking through so many of my views.
Yet, as I mentioned above, the fact I was forced to point my lens towards the surface of the water to avoid random arms, legs and hats, worked entirely to my advantage as I started to notice how much colour reflected in water, from these extraordinary colourful gardens, I had managed to capture. Already like paint-brush daubs or swirls of colour rippled, layered and patterned onto the surface of the pond, I found myself itching to get painting some of these zoomed-in shots.
Selecting five of my favourite details of the pond’s surface, zoomed right in to consider just a tiny portion of a much larger frame and, generally, taking these out of any context (though a couple of studies included trees or overhanging foliage) – in other words, taken to the level where they became almost abstract – I pinned these up where I could see them and began to paint onto small, deep-edged canvases. I found myself working extremely rapidly and fluidly…the subject-matter demanding of me that I put on hold my usual tendency to pace myself and work in many layers or to to be painstaking but, rather, working with the liquidity of oils thinned far more than usual, using fingers as much as brushes, playing with it all.
The first coat of all five was done so quickly, all in one session and I allowed these to dry completely. One more session to add depth and some detail brought them all to a conclusion where I knew I’d captured something of the very essence of Giverny – both as I had always imagined it for all those years of longing to go there, knowing it only through Monet’s paintings, and the reality that I experienced that day with my eyes cast down to where the view was least uninterrupted and most tranquil.
What took me aback was how much the finished results reminded me of Monet’s style, for all this was completely unintentional – inviting me to wonder, was this the inevitable effect the subject-matter had on me, just as it had informed the evolution of Monet’s own approach to his subject as he returned to it over and over again, or had there been a sub-conscious tug towards painting in this style because of the place-association? Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing either way and it matters not why ‘the Monet’ was brought out in me when I painted this series. You simply can’t take Monet out of the place nor, in reality, can you paint the surface of a pond or lake anywhere without inviting comparison with, or at least passing thought of, Monet – such is the cultural impact he made on every artist to come afterwards; and that, in a nutshell, is why I always wanted to go to Giverny and ‘feel into’ the place where he made art history!
The finished result (see wall of images below) is a series of deep-sided square canvases called The Giverny Series, which come as a unit to be hung together, consisting of five very different, extremely colourful, studies of light and reflection on the water on an extremely bright August day spent in Monet’s garden.
- See The Giverney Series of oil on canvas paintings in full detail on my website www.helenwhite.org
- View my complete set of photographs from our glorious visit to Giverny at Helen White Photography
- To explore all that Fat Tire Tours have to offer in Paris and other cities www.fattirebiketours.com
- See similar garden-theme paintings ‘Prelude’ and ‘Brilliance’ HERE
- More on Monet’s waterlilies in my earlier post ‘Monet’s fish tank‘
The full collection of original art by Helen White can be viewed and purchased at www.helenwhite.org