In a colorful example of serendipity, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx opened its exhibit on Monet’s Garden the same weekend that the Barnes Foundation Museum was opened in Philadelphia this past May. (See U.S. 1’s cover story, August 8.)
The New York exhibit highlights not only a painter somewhat underrepresented in museum holdings in Philadelphia but also presents living examples of the plants that inspired Monet’s work. And while the Barnes, after years of acrimony, is there to stay and is unchanging, the Monet Garden exhibit, as is true of all gardens, is temporary. However, in a major departure from typical New York Botanical Garden exhibits, the Monet Garden is a three-season extravaganza, rather than a single season one.
While the floral displays change throughout the May 19 through October 21 presentation, August and early September are probably the times to view them. What makes this time frame so special? Water lilies, of course. They are at peak bloom and are a key ingredient in Monet’s fame.
“It took me time to understand my water lilies,” Monet once wrote. “I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them.” But once he started painting them, there was no stopping. No other flower so thoroughly represents Monet’s work.
With that in mind, the Garden’s research staff tracked down Latour-Marliac, the French firm that supplied Monet’s water lilies. Yes, the firm is still in business more than a century later.
“Fortunately,” Karen Daubmann, the Garden’s director of exhibitions, notes, “the current owner is a transplanted American and we could easily communicate in English.” Through careful negotiations, in Botanical Latin as well as English, the Garden was able to obtain and is currently displaying six of the seven original water lily cultivars that Monet painted. These plants are located in separate, small container pools near the outdoor Hardy Pool and can thus be closely seen and photographed.
These individual water lily displays are dwarfed by the Hardy Pool, which is about one-quarter the size of Monet’s pond at Giverny. Partially edged by the glass Enid A. Haupt Conservatory (but missing Giverny’s lush tree foliage), the Hardy Pool is currently a colorful mosaic of water lilies, all labeled and most descendants of the cultivars that Monet painted.
Seeing such a display, one can readily understand why Monet was drawn to paint the flowers in such a tranquil setting. And for gardeners who might wish to add a water lily feature to their properties, the Garden has provided planting primers that provide pointers on how to care for water lilies at home.
The water lilies, however, are just one facet of this truly impressive presentation. The Garden has exhibits and instructional displays over several acres of its property.
Perhaps the best place to start a tour of the Monet Garden exhibit is at the Rondina Gallery, located on the top floor of the library building. There one can view two rarely seen Monet paintings. While these are highly touted in press materials, this writer was not impressed. What was impressive, however, were the enlarged black and white photographs taken at the time Monet was working in the Giverny garden. The accompanying text with these pictures provides a history of the garden, the era in which Monet painted, and how current events, especially the onset of World War I, affected his art work.
Next go to the Ross Gallery, located on the first floor of a connected building, to view Elizabeth Murray’s sumptuous full color pictures of Monet’s garden as it exists today. Murray, author of “Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insight from the Painter’s Gardens,” has been photographing and documenting Monet’s garden for 25 years. Her immense photographs provide a glimpse of the year-round beauty of the garden, and the exhibit is most appropriately titled “Seasons of Giverny.”
Having seen pictures of the past and the present, it is now time to see a living interpretation of the garden, specifically what is known as the Grande Allee. At Giverny this was a three-acre outdoor path flanked by flowers and shrubs. At the New York Botanical Garden it is a sumptuously planted walk through the glass-covered conservatory.
All the plants are in pots and can be changed to reflect the evolving seasons. While the flowers are not all the same as those that Monet planted, the color schemes are true to his. The Garden ensured this by having three current and former members of Foundation Claude Monet, including the head gardener, act as advisors on the plantings. It is all really quite lovely.
The walkway ends at a circular rotunda and here, under the direction of Tony Award-winning set designer Scott Pask, a Japanese footbridge has been created over a small pool and surrounded by willow trees, bamboo groves, and flowering shrubs.
What I think is really neat but which I did not use because I am totally technologically illiterate is the Garden’s new app, NYBG In Bloom. Produced in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the app is free and works on any iPhone. It allows one to toggle between photos of the plants in the exhibit with Monet paintings in the Met’s collection. There’s also an Impressionist Lens feature with the app that allows one to make photographs in the style of Monet.
If there is one big hiccup to the exhibition for those in our U.S. 1 area, it is getting to the New York Botanical Garden. It can be a trek. I have taken the Dinky, NJTransit to New York’s Penn Station, walked across town to Grand Central Station, and then taken a MetroNorth train to the New York Botanical Garden stop. You can also take the B, D, or 4 subway to the Bedford Park Boulevard stop and walk or take the Bx26 bus from there. It’s easiest when my husband drives me. Driving directions can be found below.
Once you get there, however, there is not only the Monet displays but also a lovely cafe. And on all days, trained docents will provide tours of the exhibition’s highlights. Check the garden’s website for tour times and meeting locations.
Monet’s Garden, New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, New York. Through Sunday, October 21. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. $10-$25. www.nybg.org or 718-817-8700.
Driving directions from Route 1: Go north to Route 18 and the NJ Turnpike norht. Follow signs to the George Washington Bridge and continue on the upper level to I-95 North. Take Exit 2B for Webster Avenue then turn right on Bedford Park Boulevard. The entrance to the garden will be on the right.