Lecture on “Easels in Eden: Monet’s Gardening and Painting at Giverny” by the Eminent Dr. Eric Haskell

On March 2, 2023, the Fellows of the Friends of Robinson Gardens were treated to a brilliant and gorgeous lecture by the much-in-demand speaker Dr. Eric Haskell on Claude Monet’s luminous paintings and gardens at Giverny. Thanks to Fellows Chair Jeanne Anderson, who organized the event, and Shiva Moshtael, who graciously opened her elegant home to the group, the Fellows could have been in a Parisian salon. 

Fluent in French, and a distinguished and prolific speaker, Dr. Haskell is Professor Emeritus of French studies and Interdisciplinary Studies, Scripps College and Director Emeritus of the Clark Humanities Museum, Scripps College. Ellen Levitt introduced Dr. Haskell, saying that in 2013, two of France’s highest honors were bestowed upon him.  By decree of the French Minister of Culture, he was inducted as Knight of the Order of Arts & Letters (Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).  By decree of the French Minister of Education, Dr. Haskell was also named Knight of the Order of Academic Palms (Chevalier des Palmes Académiques), which recognizes distinguished teaching, uncommon scholarship, and extraordinary leadership over the course of a professor’s career. 

Eric said that for him, “Jeanne is a star,” and his connection to the Virginia Robinson Gardens goes back to his grandmother, who was a frequent guest of Virginia Robinson on Sunday afternoons and always talked about it. Eric explained that his focus in this lecture is to show the trajectory of Monet’s paintings from 19th-century representation to 20th-century abstraction.

Born in 1840, Monet dies in 1926, and his passions in life are painting and later gardens. Rather than painting mythological, religious scenes, or portraits, which were the traditional subjects at the time, Monet is interested in painting scenes of everyday life. The father of Impressionism, he is interested in capturing light, earth tones, water, and sky, and the reflections of them on each other. In 1873, Monet paints the iconic work, called Impression, Sunrise which Dr. Haskell says, “is the Mona Lisa of Impressionism.”

At the age of 43, Monet rents a house and farm in Giverny, Normandy where he loves the light. He lives there with his second wife (his first wife had died), eight children from their combined marriages, ten servants, six gardeners, a cook, a laundress, and a chauffeur. Eric explained, “Monet is already considered a successful painter because he is the only Impressionist able to sell his pictures. Monet says, ‘I only paint to be able to buy beautiful plants for my garden….My garden is my studio, and my most beautiful chef d’oeuvre (masterpiece) of all. I work on my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers. Always my heart is forever in Giverny. Perhaps I owe it to the flowers that I even became a painter.’”

Presently, we know what Monet planted because there are lists of seeds he bought from an English dealer. The gardeners also dug trenches to sink his large paintings in, so that Monet could paint the upper parts of his canvas easily. In the upper garden, Monet paints the house pink and the shutters green as a backdrop to his colorful flowers. The Chinese and Japanese flowers – peonies and irises — are among his favorites.

Eric explained that Monet’s next step was to rent the pasture nearby along the River Epte which he dammed to create a lower water garden “that is radically different from the upper garden. It is a universe of its own.” Water becomes a mirror. You look down into the pond to look at the plants above. Monet is so famous at this point, that Eric said that Cezanne exclaimed, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!”

Inspired by the Japanese aesthetic of the bridge as it is depicted in the prints of the Japanese artist Hiroshige, Monet builds and paints a bridge over and over again at different times of the day. Over time, the bridge becomes darker in his artwork because he develops cataracts.  Independent of his cataracts, his paintings become more and more abstract as the bridge starts to disappear, and he steps into modernity. This revolutionary passage from representation to abstraction is reflected in his paintings.

Lily pads are an important motif for him as well, because they are “catchers of light” and produce an effect he likes, Eric continues.

In his last chapter, Monet received an important commission from the legendary statesman Georges Clemenceau, who was twice Prime Minister of France, and a good friend of Monet. Working to rebuild France after World War I, Clemenceau turned to Monet to showcase a new and modern aesthetic. He offers Monet two rooms in the L’Orangerie attached to the Louvre. Monet decides to create large panoramic paintings of the lily ponds in the oval rooms. One is immersed in his vision with a sense of infinity, which Dr. Haskell calls “liquid poetry.” Clemenceau proclaims it a “royal gift and a symphony.” The famous author Marcel Proust calls it “a celestial parterre.” The surrealist Andre Masson describes it as “a cosmic vision and the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.”

Decades later, the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge installed renditions of these paintings on the walls in a room in their Chateau Gabriel in Normandy.

These images counterbalance the stress of modern life. Indeed, Monet said of these paintings he created that he wanted to “offer a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.”

Monet died in the year that these paintings were installed, and Clemenceau then honored him with a state funeral. The number of people who came equaled those at the funeral of Victor Hugo. As a stirring gesture to this luminous artist, Clemenceau ripped off the black cloth covering the coffin, declaring, “There will be no black for Monet!”

After this moving lecture, Jeanne said, “It was so beautiful. I love Monet and listening to Eric, I feel Monet has become a part of me.” As a thank you to Shiva for opening her beautiful home to the Fellows, Jeanne presented Shiva with a book on Monet’s garden, donated by attendee Lee Shaw, the daughter-in-law of the late movie star Angela Lansbury. A serious gardener, Angela loved gardening and collected many gardening books. When she passed away, Lee donated Angela’s collection as a gift to Robinson Gardens.

Jeanne’s breathtaking and oh-so-fragrant arrangement of a symphony of pink roses, lilies, and other flowers nestled in romantic vases (in honor of Monet’s symphony of colors in his gardens and his art) on the tables wowed the guests.

The Fellows enjoyed a French-themed, superb luncheon served on Shiva’s delicate lace placemats or on green tablecloths. The Kitchen for Exploring Foods catered the menu featuring roasted chicken with lemon thyme reduction; a salad of frisée, red sensation pears, candied walnuts, pomegranate seeds, lemon vinaigrette; and a sumptuous tarte-tatin.

The Fellows cannot thank Jeanne and Eric enough for such an unforgettable and beautiful day!

Post and Photos by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member

Editor of the VRG eNewsletter, the Happenings

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