Vahé notes that, when it came to the gardens, Monet was driven by desire and instinct. He’d once decided on the spur of the moment that he wanted chrysanthemums, and wrote a letter to friend and fellow painter
to find out where he could get them.
Monet prided himself on the garden, acknowledging it as his own creation, but also as his open-air studio, where he planted himself for hours on end to paint, weather permitting. In the Japanese water garden, which he developed later, he installed a large studio.
Though the time Monet spent at Giverny is often associated with the artist’s darker works and periods of personal turmoil, particularly around World War I, the gardens are said to have instilled in the artist a sense of joy, as well as the motivation to create the works that would later be credited with pushing Western painting towards abstraction.
And Vahé works tirelessly to realize for visitors to Giverny the vision of the gardens they’re expecting from those paintings—the vibrant, flowery oasis or the serene waterlily sanctuary that they fell in love with at a museum, through an art history book, or on a poster.
He works with a team of 10 full-time gardeners, as well as volunteers, from worldly horticulturists to teenage French apprentices. While the gardeners typically work from 7 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., with a long lunch in between, Vahé notes that his days often begin before then and last until 8 p.m. No day is typical; his hours might be filled with watering plants, ordering seeds or bulbs for future seasons in his office across the road (the seeds are primarily sourced from Japan and the U.S.), visiting a supplier in Vernon, tending to plant production in greenhouses, or guiding film crews through the gardens.
The plants we see today are not exactly the ones that Monet painted a century ago, and they’re not all placed where they were when the artist lived, but Vahé believes that’s not what’s important. Rather, he works to maintain the original aesthetic—a certain profile of color and light—that corresponds to Monet’s vision.
Central to this approach is putting light-colored flowers—whites and yellows—in every area of the shade; and placing dark colors in juxtaposition to paler colors. It’s also crucial to create a density of vegetation along the garden’s central path, and to develop moments where the viewer is fully immersed in plants, so that the sky is barely visible.
In some cases, though, a faithfulness to Monet’s original garden is maintained precisely, as in the beds of enormous crimson red geraniums just in front of the house. Those beds, which are central to foot traffic, need to be uprooted and filled with new soil every 10 to 15 years. Other plants, however—like a type of Japanese anemone that Monet kept—they’ve found they cannot cultivate today.