Monet’s Japanese-Style Garden

Commodore Perry and his black ships pried open Japan to the West in 1854 and unleashed floodgates of cultural enchantment from East to West. Among those famously swept by Japonisme (fascination with things Japanese) was Claude Monet, who collected more than 200 ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), an art form considered a pinnacle of Japanese artistry.

Monet with his ukiyo-e collection

But for Monet, the ukiyo-e  (which interestingly translates to “pictures of a floating world” in Japanese) was but the beginning of a deeper immersion into the country’s artistic tradition. They led him to another Japanese art form that has probably found more universal appeal since the first wave of japonisme in the 19th century: the Japanese garden.

Free Interpretation. It has been argued that Monet never sought to be authentic when he set out to design his water garden in Giverny, France. First, it would have been rather presumptuous to do so with his lack of first-hand experience of an authentic Japanese garden.

He came to know of some signature Japanese garden plants which eventually found their way to his garden from images in his ukiyo-e collection.

Rhododendrons, azaleas, Japanese maples and willow by the pond. Photo courtesy of

The rest of his Japanese gardening knowledge he got from one of his protégés, the American painter Lilla Cabot Perry (remotely related by marriage to Commodore Perry and had lived in Japan) and from his readings.

Second, as an artist who had gone against convention before as one of the original Impressionists, Monet is just being consistent in invoking artistic license as he suits the  aesthetic conventions of the Japanese garden to his own taste.

The curved vermilion bridge is a fixture in boating gardens of the aristocratic Heian period in Japan (late 8th to 12th century).

Photo courtesy of

In Monet’s garden, the bridge traded its traditional bright hue for a shade of green closer to the painter’s palette.

The actual bridge in Monet’s water garden. Photo courtesy of

One of Monet’s paintings of his Japanese bridge.

Not for him too is the visual austerity observed with flowers in a Japanese garden. Aside from probably allowing his azaleas, rhododendrons, wisteria and water lilies to bloom all they want, he is said to have also imported peonies, with their show-stopping blossoms, from Japan.

Third, gardening as an artistic expression obviously still took a backseat to his lifelong commitment as a painter. His Japanese-style water garden mainly existed to harbor the artistic muses of his latter years, notably his famous water lilies.

A Deeper Connection. But Monet, almost unwittingly, managed to plumb the depths of the Japanese gardening tradition in more fundamental ways than someone of lesser aesthetic sensibility could have done in similar circumstances.

It has been said that the lack of symmetry in a Japanese garden is probably its key difference with Western-style gardens, particularly of the French and Italian traditions. Amazingly, Monet both had symmetrical and asymmetrical gardens in his Giverny property, as if to make a textbook case for the difference between a Western and an Asian garden.

Aerial drawings of Monet’s two gardens: Clos Normand (top) and the water garden (bottom)

The Clos Normand (upper drawing), built ten years earlier than the water garden, may not be nearly as regimented as the Versailles — Monet strove to cultivate an intensely alive, iridescent palette of living flowers —- but it does display a lot of linearity and predictability in its layout compared to the organic shapes of his highly asymmetrical water garden (lower drawing).

An authentic Japanese garden is also about the garden’s relationship with the owner or gardener.  You may have the cash to buy up all the antique stone lanterns in Japan but a garden designer worth his salt will still refuse to build you a garden if you won’t get your hands dirty in helping maintain the garden.

From the get-go, Monet exemplified a hands-on approach to his garden, designing it himself and buying the plants. Although he probably left the actual digging of the lily pond and planting to hirelings, it couldn’t have been very easy to find help around the vicinity because his peasant neighbors were apprehensive that his exotic Asian plants might poison their water. In creating his pond, Monet used an existing brook in the property that ultimately feeds into the Seine river.

Finally, there’s the Japanese gardener’s attention to details. A well-maintained Japanese black pine takes more or less 16 man-hours each year to attend to. Monet’s gardener who went around on a boat every morning to clean the train soot off his water lilies probably spent more time than that per year.  In both situations, there is a strong sense of the garden as a place for exercising man’s aesthetic control over nature.

 Additional sources:;


Monet Discovers the Water Lily

Claude Monet’s iconic water garden paintings did for the water lily what the Buddha did ages ago for its distant cousin, the lotus — elevating what we now consider a common plant from being just another pretty face in the garden crowd to a symbol of transcendence.

One of Monet’s “Water Lilies” is on permanent exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.

But while Buddha-and-lotus blossom  signals a certain detachment from the muck of earthly passion, it was quite different for Monet and his water lilies. The mortal Monet  fell under the spell of his own myth-making, falling in love with his botanical muses.

“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” he wrote a friend in 1908.

In 1890, the painter originally intended to carve for himself an aquatic retreat for meditation when he purchased a tract of flood land near his farmhouse home in the French village of Giverny.

Instead, his tranquil water garden — made in the Japanese style — became the delightful locus of his obsession, with the water lilies and surrounding landscape elements becoming the focus of his painting in the last 27 years of his life.

Monet's Japanese-style water garden with the famous bridge, weeping willows and of course, the nympheas. Photo:

Monet’s Japanese-style water garden with the famous green bridge. Photo:

A French horticulturist named Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac was pivotal in the story of Monet and his lilies.  More than a decade before Monet created his beloved water garden, Latour-Marliac has been developing a select group of hybrid water lilies featuring a color palette to delight an impressionist’s heart: from delicate yellow to fuchsia and deep red.  Up to that time, the only water lily hardy enough to survive the European climate was a white flower variety. Visit Latour-Marliac’s website for more on the horticulturist’s Monet encounter.

The “Attraction” lotus, developed by Marliac, is still found in the present-day Monet water garden. Photo:

The "Gloire du Temple," is another Marliac variety still present in the Monet garden.

The “Gloire du Temple,” is another Marliac variety still seen in the Monet garden. Photo:

Monet was said to have visited Latour-Marliac’s nursery at Le Temple-sur-Lot outside of Bordeaux, France one day in 1875, (although some accounts say he first encountered the lilies in Latour-Marliac’s exhibit at the 1889 World Fair in Paris).  He later on acquired some varieties for his water garden and immortalized these in a series of approximately 250 oil paintings.   

A Memory of Clouds …


The Hiroshima survivor tree. Photo: GRM

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

… Or is it a premonition? After all, the Japanese white pine (Pinus parvifolia) bonsai tree (top photo) — with its darkly prophetic cloud-style pruning — preceded by more than 300 years the 1945 Hiroshima nuclear cloud (bottom) that it miraculously survived while sitting in a bonsai nursery about two miles from Ground Zero.

This bonsai was first trained into its present shape in the year 1625,  near the start of  the Edo period in Japan, ironically the time when peace has reigned the longest in documented Japanese history.

Those two chapters in the country’s history have come and gone but we still have this tree  committing them to living memory, more than any other man-made work of art or literature on those periods could ever do. I was awestruck by the weight of history behind it and deeply moved by the eloquent cultural gesture which brought me in the presence of this magnificent living thing one sunny day last May at Washington DC’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which has been the tree’s home since about a year after I was born.

Since 1945, it has sent up fresh green pine candles (carefully pruned of course by gardeners in its new home) to mark a springtime thawing and warming in the relations between Japan and the US.  The tree  found its way to the US, along with 49 other bonsai trees, as a gift from Japan on the occasion of the US Bicentennial in 1976. Each of the 50 trees represents a state in the Union.  The tree was donated by Japanese bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, who hailed from a long line of commercial bonsai nurserymen in Hiroshima.

Learn more about the story behind this amazing tree here.