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Meet Claude Monet's Master Gardener

Gilbert Vahé has devoted much of his life to the picturesque Claude Monet gardens in Giverny, a living legacy he not only preserved, but helped recreate.

The Japanese footbridge is the subject of some of Monet's best-known works (ohaoha)
The Japanese footbridge is the subject of some of Monet's best-known works (ohaoha)
Arianne Bavelier

How many gardeners would strip naked in front of their tomatoes to make them go red? If Gilbert Vahé had to, he would, without hesitation. This man, who has spent 35 years of his life recreating Monet's garden in Giverny, embodies the absolute devotion and passion that his unusual job requires.

Like Monet before him, Vahé goes to work in the garden every morning at 6 a.m. Dawn is the best time of day, he says, because it is "when the blue light of the night turns slowly into pink, shimmering on the dewy plants bordering the Seine and Epte rivers."

Vahé walks round the garden, pulls up a withered flower, watches the effects of time on short-lived flowers, and takes pictures week after week to follow the development of the garden's 56 flowerbeds. Simply put, he lives for Giverny.

It all happened quite naturally for Vahé, who has spent more years between the walls of the water garden and the Norman orchard, in front of Monet's pink house, than anywhere else. Ten times his wife has come close to divorcing him. She hates Claude Monet. Once she even booked a flight, to drag him away from the garden. But at the very last minute he chose to stay. "How can I do this job without giving my all? This is a question of honor!" he exclaims.

When Vahé arrived in Giverny in 1977, the impressionist master had been dead for 50 years. After visiting Giverny with the painter himself, Georges Truffaut described Monet's garden in his magazine Jardinage as "the most beautiful work of art by Claude Monet, a work of art that he savored for 40 years and which has given him his greatest moments of joy." When Vahé arrived, there was nothing left. The Norman orchard had become a forest, the bridge had collapsed, wisteria was piled up on the ground and the banks of the water garden were destroyed by coypus.

Gérald Van der Kemp, chief curator of the Château de Versailles at the time, was getting ready to leave Louis XIV's castle to revive Monet's garden himself. On a recommendation, he hired Vahé to help carry out the monumental task. Far from convinced, Vahé agreed to assist - for a while anyway.

"When Mr. Van de Kemp offered a me job in Giverny, I thought I would stay there one year," says Vahé, laughing. "What could I have to do with that royalist socialite? In May 1968 I'd been throwing cobblestones in the streets." He remembers their first meeting at Versailles. "It turned out that I loved working with him. Together, we created two gardens dedicated to Monet in Japan."

Van der Kemp has a passion for two things: painting and flowers. He gives free rein to both in his attempts to understand Monet's garden. Vahé learned how to read his impulses - and curb those he found inappropriate.

"Van der Kemp and Monet were separated by one generation. Van der Kemp wanted to plant double flowers, precious flowers, which fitted his dandy lifestyle but which did not fit the atmosphere that emanates from Giverny," says Vahé.

Looking for clues, trusting your gut

"He was constantly battling with me for three years because he wanted to wear a red carnation on his lapel every morning. I did not want to plant red carnations in the garden. I finally planted some in the greenhouses just so he would leave me alone!"

The decade-long job of recreating the garden was ruled by instinct. Without Monet there to instruct them directly, Vahé and Van der Kemp sought clues in photos, paintings and from interviews with the master painter's descendants.

"We found a description of Monet's garden written by Truffaut, letters written by Monet before going on a trip in which he gave details about what varieties should be planted and how. But our research was not very fruitful. We only understood that Monet's imagination was fueled by sensations," says Vahé.

Taming the water garden was easy. And today, visitors still take pictures of it. The mystery of Monet's garden is the Norman orchard: measuring 9,175 square meters, it features splashes of color, colors in relief, and light that changes throughout the seasons. Vahé defines it as "the painter's palette." The gardener recreates that palette in the flowerbeds, making cold colors move toward warm colors, blue towards yellow. He chooses cones instead of lines and adds light touches to shady zones.

Even if he has passed down his knowledge to 10 of his colleagues – some of them have been working with him for 15 years – Vahé is the only one to have such a thorough knowledge of the secrets of Monet's garden. At some point, however, enough is enough. On June 1, the master gardener will finally retire. Mostly he's tired of doing paperwork. And he is convinced that a gardener cannot just work 35 hours a day.

"Replacing him is certainly the trickiest thing in my career. Monet's garden at Giverny is not the gardens of Versailles or Vaux-le-Vicomte, drawings of which are kept in the archives," says Hugues Gall, director of the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny.

Mr. Gall has chosen James Priest, a 53-year-old English gardener, to take over. Vahé will stay three more years as a consultant. "I hope that in the end he'll write a book, that he will put his unique knowledge about Monet's garden down on paper," says Hugues Gall.

Vahé is considering it distractedly. But he would prefer to take up painting. Before Monet, he used to paint.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - ohaoha

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