Everyone has a pilgrimage: for a history buff could visit the Tower of London, a World War II veteran returns to the beaches of Normandy, art history majors could spend months in the Louvre, a marine biologist diving the Great Barrier Reef. While painting and watercolor sketches are lifelong hobbies, I am not by any means an artist. I have always been inspired by the bravery of the Impressionist movement. In the late 1800s while Paris was being demolished making room for its well known wide boulevards and beautiful slated buildings, a group of artists began to stray from realism. Inspired by light and nature, they painted shadows in color, left brushstrokes visible and even though their compositions were methodical and their education classical- they seemed to paint with effortless feeling. So suffice it to say, I had high hopes for the day trip to Giverny and the home of Claude Monet
A train ride from the Parisian Gare St. Lazare to the small town of Vernon in Normandy takes a mere 45 minutes. But during that time, my family enjoyed quiches and coffee we had grabbed at a market and watched the landscape turn from the inner city melee of Paris to the suburbs then fields and small villages of Normandy. Arriving in Vernon, we hustled to grab the last of the bikes for rent. The cafe across from the station has several available for just a few Euros if you take the early train.
This little town has moments of modernization but is still postcard beautiful with its pretty rooftops and old cathedral. It is also interesting to witness the merchants readying their shops for the day, pulling out café tables, arranging produce, sweeping the stoop. Enjoying the architecture as we left Vernon we rode over the large bridge that crosses the Seine and after navigating the traffic circle were almost immediately on a rural bike path.
The small village of Giverny is a 5 kilometer bike ride with most of the ride on a protected bike path. The path spills out onto a cobblestone road lined with beautiful houses, blooming gardens and small storefronts. Near the end of town, the crowd will tip you off that you have reached the home and gardens of Claude Monet. This landscape has been painted so often, the iconic images are so familiar that one feels an immediate connection to the surroundings. The Monet home welcomes you with its pink façade and happy green shutters, the perfect backdrop to the melody of colors in the garden. Upon entering Monet’s studio, with bright French country sunlight pouring in, it is easy to understand how this environment fostered his artistic nature and the study of light. How the play of light becomes so important, and painting en plein air not posed with controlled arrangements and controlled light. The gardens are still well tended and in April tulips abound, dogwoods and cherry trees are in full bloom and the colors around the Japanese bridge and pond are amazing, although, alas, no waterlilies until October. But it is never ending beauty. So many blossoms and landscapes worthy of achieving immortality through the paintbrush. Is that what drove Monet’s work? All my attempts to photograph, paint and capture beauty are eclipsed by the spirit of the great painter who walked these same paths. But nonetheless, I encourage you to try as we did. I sat with my children on a shady bench next to the waterlily pond and we all drew and watercolored. Those are the memories I hold of that day- our connection.
After an enjoyable lunch in a café under the trees in Giverny, we pedaled back to Vernon for the train ride back to Paris. The train provided a nice rest hour before the re-entry into the hustle of the city.
Our day trip to Giverny happened to fall on Thursday which is also the day the Musee d’Orsay is open late. And since provenance had determined that this was to be the “perfect day”, our Paris Museum Passes worked and two friendly guards admitted us with absolutely no line. Within moments, we were in the museum standing in front of the real thing. Monet’s waterlilies seem to take you inside the water, feeling the movement, seeing the play of light. The audio guide is highly recommended for interesting stories and biographical information if you don't have a degree in art history. I also recommend them for your children. So often, my children tune me out, not necessarily because of the information but the delivery. The audioguides are enough technology and toy-like to interest as well as inform them. (Side note: Of particular interest to the children were the caricatures of Honore Daumier. These drawings offer a great commentary on political and social situations in France.)
The waterlilies alongside Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, and Gaugin inhabit the beautiful Beaux Artes train station creating a world you could spend days in just soaking up the images. The amazing story of how those artists, who were ridiculed as “impressionists”, were able to break new ground with their art while almost starving to death in the interim. Several of them were not celebrated until later in their careers, the traditional Salon would not accept their works and patrons were scarce but still they challenged themselves. Renoir gambled everything on an enormous canvas he could barely afford paint for, he hired 13 models and fed them all to paint a moment in time so that 100 years later we still feel their camaraderie and joy. Monet, secluded in the country, painted those lilies over and over until he found what he was looking for. Monet painted the cathedral in Rouen 31 times and over 2 years, capturing the light of each time of day and each season. These were groundbreaking, brave men that succeeded in taking their art to new levels and breaking barriers. And a century later,still making an impression on all of us.
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