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From Monet’s flowerpot to Gardening Giverny

By Emma House, Curator

It all started with a flowerpot!

I often think curating is like peeling layers of an onion. With some topics you neatly peel back the layers and reach the centre of the subject in a clear methodical way. But with others, each layer splits stubbornly. You never quite manage to peel it back neatly, but it still makes a wonderful base of a stew. Monet’s flowerpot has been little like the second for me, but I’m glad it eventually lead me unexpectedly to Jean Marie-Toulgouat.

Monet’s flowerpot

Several years ago I spent a few long weeks dashing to the British Library to read up on Monet’s gardens, dragging my notes out of the attic on Fantin-Latour’s garden, his friendship with the Impressionist group and the plants they grew. Why might you ask? Well, a wonderful salt glazed jardinière had come up for sale at auction in Hong Kong. It had belonged to Monet, and he probably bought it in Amsterdam in 1871 after he had left Paris due to the Franco-Prussian war. It was large and had a beautiful fluid motif of a hippogriff on it. When Monet returned to France in the autumn of 1871, he brought the pot with him to the home he rented in Argenteuil, a village on the right bank of the Seine. The house he rented came with a gardener and he filled the pot with daisies and set it along the edge of the house’s terrace where it featured in a painting of his son Jean playing with a hoop. The pot travelled with Monet to his next house in Argenteuil where it seems to have been used to grow indoor plants or for overwintering plants in the house as it features in a number of interior paintings of Monet’s wife Camille from 1875.

The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil by Claude Monet, 1881

When the family moved to Vétheuil the pot travelled with them filled with gladioli becoming part of a new terraced garden where it sat on the edge of path from the house down to the Seine River. After the death of Monet’s wife the pot travelled with him once more to his home at Giverny where it formed part of a display of pots along the edge of the veranda.

As a curator, objects, the information they hold and the stories they tell form the basis of my work. This single plant pot held so much information about Monet and the way he gardened, his life and how he painted. The Art Fund and the ACE/V&A Purchase Fund both supported our funding applications to buy the pot, but bidding was fierce, and it quickly soared beyond our funding of £5,000 eventually selling for £35,000. Sadly, on that occasion a wonderful piece of garden history was beyond our grasp.

This spring my thoughts turned once more to Giverny with our current exhibition in collaboration with David Messum Fine Art. With Jean-Marie Toulgouat’s paintings I’ve been looking at Giverny through new works. I’ve been researching Monet’s garden once again, but this time the restoration of the garden which Jean-Marie Toulgouat was heavily involved.

Le Chape des Soleils, 1992, Jean-Marie Toulgouat. Courtesy David Messum Fine Art

Jean-Marie Toulgouat was born in Giverny in 1927, a year after Monet died, he grew up nearby and visited his Aunt Blanche Hoschedsé-Monet regularly. Together receiving art lessons from his grandfather American Impressionist Theodore Butler and his aunt Blanche he learned to paint in the garden. He shied away from becoming an artist originally training as an architect and working in landscape architecture.

Young Toulgouat painting with Theodore Butler, courtesy Collection Toulgouat and David Messum Fine Art

But in the 1960s he returned to Giverny picking up a paint brush again. And like Monet the garden and its plants became his muse. His works are vivid and bold and allow us to see Giverny through new eyes. Toulgouat created his own distinctive style that captured the landscapes and gardens that surrounded him in a fresh new way.

I wonder if as a child if Toulgouat ever helped Blanche add bulbs to those flowerpots or if he ever painted them? Of, course last summer when I visited Giverny, I thought about Monet’s pots. His little traveling garden that allowed him to garden even when he had no fixed abode. How many people still follow in his footsteps today gardening in pots because they too move regularly or don’t have a garden. But now Toulgouat’s works make me think of the garden in a different way too, he details many of the plants that were so important to Monet but possibly might have been forgotten without his careful assistance in restoring the gardens.

Jean-Marie Toulgouat: Gardening Giverny is open till 24 April: book your visit

Top image: L’Automne au Jardin (Manotte), 1997, Jean-Marie Toulgouat. Courtesy David Messum Fine Art
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