Seeing Giverny
by John Salvisburg


The second piece of creative nonfiction for my writing 305 class was to be an essay of place. I immediately chose the most memorable trip I took during my semester abroad in London as my subject. This paper intimately describes my feelings and recreates an incredible experience that I will always remember. It was the most enjoyable and gratifying writing I have ever done, and I would like to thank Majorie Ledden for all of her help.


"This is where Monet came to refine his sensations, making them as sharp as possible. He would remain here in his armchair for hours without moving, without speaking, peering at the undersides of passing and sunlit things, trying to read in their reflections the elusive glimmer where mysteries are revealed. Speech is disdained to confront the silence of fleeting harmonies. Is not seeing understanding?"

- Georges Clemenceau


As I peer out of the bus window, massive feelings rage through my body. Excitement flows through my blood stream as tension and anxiety twist and turn in the pit of my stomach. With headphones on, listening to a mix of my favorite songs, confusing emotions begin to blend my mind into jelly. I begin to worry that I am psyching myself out; that I'm setting myself up for a big disappointment. I interrogate myself, is this place really going to be all that I've made it out to be? What if it's not sunny out? This whole trip will be worthless. It has been six long and tedious months since my plans for this trip were first established. Since that time, my anticipation for this day has grown exponentially and has become the most highly anticipated day of my life. The bus meanders through the glorious French countryside and is moments away from arriving at our destination. It is only a matter of time before I bestow upon the magnificent world of the renowned impressionist painter, Claude Monet.

Our destination is a small village located along a hillside that faces the Seine River. This village was hardly a place of interest until this well-known painter took up residence there in 1883. It is a place officially known as Giverny, but commonly referred to as the home of Claude Monet. At the age of 43, Monet spent the remainder of his life at his home and gardens in Giverny until he exited the world in 1926. It was during this time that Monet created his most masterful pieces of artwork. He spent day after day examining his gardens and trying to capture on canvas what it was that he visioned. The most important element to Monet's painting was light. Monet was not trying to paint the gardens themselves. Rather, he was painting the way in which he saw them; through light. He broke down each color into its abstract element and orchestrated the colors he saw onto the canvas. Captivating what he believed to be visioning; color defined by the light in which it is illuminated.

Before I know it, the bus arrives at our destination. I turn to my roommate who is sitting beside me and speak in a heightened voice, "We're here Paul, We're actually here!" He responds with a big smile of excitement, he knows how much this trip means to me. The first thing I do when I get off the bus is examine the sky. A clear, bright, sunny day. Perfect, absolutely perfect, I proclaim. As we wait in line to receive an entrance ticket, I review a map that I was handed which displays the layout of the grounds. I realize that the road we just came off was the Chemin du Roy that divides the grounds into two. This one time local railway, that connected the towns of Vernon and Gasny, has been turned into a motor way that serves the same purpose. The thought of this industrialization by-product dissecting one of the most splendid sights in the world disgusts me. Nevertheless, I grab my ticket and prepare to enter this mystical place. Paul says to me, "Where to first?"

"The Water Garden," I reply, "let's go!" I lead Paul and a few others through a tunnel that passes underneath the Chemin du Roy, to the other side. As I rise out from under the tunnel, a strange sense comes over me and makes me feel as if I'm about to embark on something that goes beyond my wildest imagination.

During my sophomore year, I took an art history class that researched my interest for the fine arts. I became captivated by the class and developed a special liking for the Impressionism period. What interested me so much, was the way in which these artists broke down their subjects into simple elements, and produced a composition of colors that represented what is seen in actuality. My curiosity deepened and led me to single out the main icon of the period as my favorite artist; Claude Monet. I studied his style and numerous paintings of his, mostly of his gardens in Giverny. Since then I have adored his work and have dreamt about seeing some of his masterpieces in person, let alone his Water Garden and Clos Normand in Giverny. Never did I think those dreams would come true, at least not so soon.

A gravel path greets us and will presumably lead us to the sight we are so eager to see. I begin down this path and walk ever so slowly, observing everything as I go. The path takes a 90 degree bend and along the left side is a wall of fairly thick trees and shrubbery. On the right side lies a small, wire fence with an open field beyond it. I notice a small river running along the left side of the path. Actually, it's more of a creek. This must be the river Epte that supplies the heart of the Water Garden, the Water Lily pool, with its water. I continue onward and approach an opening to the left. I make the turn and into my vision comes a slight view of a pristine body of water. My body begins to tremble as I move forward towards this sight. As I submerge out past the wall of trees and shrubbery the most delectable sight enters my peripheral vision. I walk onto the Landing stage and stop, remaining motionless. Alas, I have finally set foot in Giverny and Monet's famous Water Garden sits right before my very eyes.

The blinding sun sends down powerful rays that glisten off the body of water and magnify the entire garden. Islands of water lilies remain stationary along the water's surface. These naturally green lily pads seem brought to life by these tiny bulbs of a vibrant pink color, which lay calmly on their top. Immediately I recall Monet's set of well-known concentration studies, Decorations des Nympheas. The water lilies were Monet's main focus in these paintings. With the interplay of reflections cast into the surrounding water a recreation of the surrounding nature was apparent and beautifully illuminated. The rest of the garden was full of vegetation, vegetation, and more vegetation. The predominant feature was the weeping willow tree hanging over the edge of the north bank. This cast a large shadow onto the pond. Before I started strolling around this magnificent garden, it was time to capture this initial image. Click. Click. "Hey Paul, can you take a picture for me?" Click. I know that a camera could never capture these magnificent images as well as Monet ever did, but I am set on taking away from here as many memories as possible. I began walking along the path that circled the lily pond. Everything was so calm and peaceful as this spectacle of nature's beauty completely enthralled me. The banks of the pond were filled with heather, ferns, laurel, rhododendrons, azaleas, and holly. Click. A multitude of colorful irises baked in the September sun as their true pigments shone themselves. Peach, purple, white, violet, and magenta all made an appearance. As I stare at these lovely flowers, Monet's Iris jaunes et mauve is recalled from my memory. "Kate, you mind getting a shot of me?" The whole garden is protected by weeping willows, tree peonies, Judea trees, cherry blossom trees, and much bamboo. Ferns firmly pointed into the air with pink and white flowers embedded within them. Click. The realization of what I was actually witnessing was starting to set in and inhibited my ability to walk. My legs were practically shaking as my heart was racing endlessly. There were about 30 or so people walking around the area but the dominance of nature made the sight of human's minute.

I came upon the trademark of this water garden, the Japanese Bridge. Built in 1895, designed after an engraving, the bridge has become one of Monet's most recognized subjects. Perhaps one of Monet's most famous paintings is his Le Bassin des Nympheas in which he magically recreates the sight of this bridge. I remember sitting in art class and seeing this painting for the first time; I instantly fell in love with it. The Japanese Bridge was also the focus of another set of concentration studies called, Le Pont Japonais. The bridge has green railings and arches over a narrow portion of the pond. This phenomenal structure, is covered with plant-life, mostly mauve and white wisteria, which drapes over its edges. I walk onto the bridge and look over onto the breathtaking view of the lily pond. "Hey Chris, go over there and take a picture of me, I got to get the angle from which Monet painted this bridge." I look down into the crystal clear water and notice the green grass swaying at the bottom of the pond. Amazing, I thought. The only thing in this entire area that is not plant-life is this water. Yet the water is the most crucial element to it all. The reflections created by the sunlight radiate a plethora of images upon this unstable body of water. I can understand completely why this element was such an instrumental part of Monet's study of light and shade and its effect on color. Scanning across the entire garden, I examine the natural elegance that is illuminated, but at the same time think about how what it is really is, is a phony and unnatural element. It's hard to imagine that someone actually created this. The authenticity of the plant-life is unquestioned, but for someone to actually orchestrate all of this in such splendor is nothing short of miraculous. Monet's entire life was dedicated to painting and botany. I took one last memorable look at this unbelievable sight and went on my way to the tunnel. Click.

On the other side of the Chemin du Roy was the Clos Normand. This is another garden that is found in front of Monet's house. In contrast to the water gardens Japanese, asymmetrical style, this French, symmetrical lower garden produced some of the most prolific colors I have ever seen. Monet transformed this one time orchard into two flower beds separated by a metal archway. This archway is covered with an arcade of roses with creeping flowers lined along this central pathway. As I gaze at this sight, I think of Monet's interpretation of this archway in Lí Allee des Rosiers Giverny. Each wide row of flowers in the garden is consumed by the vibrant colors of the gladioli, lark-spur, phlox, daisies, asters, poppies, and an unmentionable variety of other flowers. "Adam, do you mind taking a shot of me?"

I had learned that Monet arranged his flowers by alternating the annuals with the perennials in each row so that there were always some plants in bloom. A vast array of reds, yellows, whites, pinks, purples, and oranges. The vivacity produced by all of these colors was somewhat like looking through a kaleidoscope. Click. I glance down along the ground and notice a cigarette butt lying there. It was noted by Lucien Descaves that Monet smoked nearly forty cigarettes a day, mostly in the open air and flung them away half-smoked. An absurd thought entered my mind. How could a man who had such great respect for nature and spent all of his time procuring it, be so ignorant as to pollute the air and ground with such a nasty habit? I looked at my watch, Oh my god, I've only got ten minutes before the bus leaves. My heart sinks to my stomach as I scamper to the souvenir shop. I' ll be damned if I leave here without some kind of memento or memorabilia. I scurry through all the incredible items in the money making sanctuary and spend the few francs I have. I exit the shop and spend one last minute absorbing all that I could of this amazing place before returning to the bus.

I study the pictures that I had developed from my trip to Giverny and expectantly realize that they are in no way a legitimate representation of what I had seen that day. As I look back to that trip, I am appalled at the single hour that we were allowed to spend at the gardens. That is not even close to being enough time to consume all that Giverny has to offer. I have my pictures, my visitors guide, my journal entry, and some little nick-nacks to fill my materialistic need to recollect memories. However, after reading Walker Percy's The Loss of the Creature, I begin to question my actions during this trip. I had many preconceived notions before I arrived at Giverny and expectations that I was trying to downplay. Even though the gardens went beyond my wildest expectations, I was less concerned with discovering this place and more concerned with creating still images to be used for future recollection. As Percy says of the typical sightseer, "Instead of looking at it [the sight], he photographs it. The present is surrendered to the past and the future" (Hall 429). Perhaps the time constraint played on my mind and caused me to have a trigger-happy finger. Maybe I'm just an example of Percy's view. I was too busy collecting future memories rather than experiencing memories in the present. As I analyzed Percy's essay more deeply, I came to an unexpected realization.

Walker Percy talks about a form of seeing in The Loss of the Creature that I will call primitive seeing. This is when one discovers a place without any preconceptions and being able to see this place for what it is. An example that Percy uses, is the explorer Cardenas discovering the Grand Canyon. "To him it is beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is" (428). Percy goes on to say that this sight holds a special value to Cardenas, "The assumption is that the Grand Canyon is a remarkably interesting and beautiful place" (428). Word gets out about this incredible discovery and soon it becomes a tourist attraction. Percy argues that all the hype built up about the Grand Canyon taints the sightseers'vision. "The thing (Grand Canyon) is rather that which has already been formulated-by picture postcards, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon" (429). Percy claims the sightseer will never see the Grand Canyon for what it is, it has a fixed value of interest, unless he or she breaks away from the approved confrontation with the sight. The sightseer will measure up what they are seeing to the pre formulated complex rather than take part in a sovereign discovery.

This notion of primitive seeing holds true for Claude Monet and his gardens at Giverny. Monet explored and discovered his gardens that held a certain value of interest to him. It was Monet's extraordinary discoveries that led him to capture what he was seeing on canvas. Where this example differs from Percy's is in what Monet did to extend his role as a primitive seer. Not only did Monet discover what he saw in his gardens, he went on to reproduce his visions within his paintings. His goal was to capture the value in what he was seeing and portray it visually. In effect, Monet was developing what would become a performed complex for future sightseers. This allows a sightseer with this performed complex to see Giverny through the eyes of its primitive seer, Claude Monet.

While Walker Percy makes a strong case with his Grand Canyon example, I find Monet and his gardens to be an exception to Percy's claims. If Monet had discovered Giverny and never recorded what he had seen, the value of seeing Giverny would be very little. The sightseer would see an interesting and beautiful garden, much like Cardenas saw an interesting and beautiful canyon, but one would not know what value that sight created in the primitive seer's mind. Monet spent 43 years of his life exploring and discovering his garden. As Georges Clemenceau mentions, "Monet spent day after day sitting in his chair just seeing, understanding his garden." Throughout this time he created numerous paintings that represent the things he saw. One could never dedicate this much time to discovering a place, but Monet's collective artwork as a performed complex facilitates one's ability to see the gardens as he did. Percy believes that a performed complex hinders one's ability to see a place for what it really is. However, it is the performed complex which Monet has developed that enables one to see Giverny for what it really is.

For me, visiting Giverny with the performed complex of Monet's artwork is what made the experience so memorable. Everywhere I looked, I could see where one of Monet's paintings was derived from. It was through his paintings that I could visualize what he was seeing and understand why he painted in the way that he did. If it weren' t for this performed complex, my visit to Giverny would have been nothing more than okay. In contrast to Walker Percy's theory, my pre-formulation of Giverny was the reason my visit went far beyond my wildest imagination.


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