For a start, to practice my marginal French, after buying the day’s Herald Trib at the news kiosk in the Vernon train station, I essayed to solicit directions to Giverny in the local language. Alas, the French worked all right, but not my metric system savvy: I misinterpreted six kilometers as six tenths of a kilometer, just a hop and a skip beyond the bridge over the Seine.
Alas, I had committed myself to a four-mile dull slog. Mid-hike, I tried to rationalize that this was after all the bucolic countryside Claude Monet had fled Paris to savor. No way. I later learned that this nondescript motorway had in fact replaced the local railway that made his days in the woods accessible.
Arriving to find the museum closed for lunch, I repaired to the Nympheas café kitty-korner for a bowl of soup to rejuvenate me after my unintended hike. There I made Mistake Number Two, asking the owner what the name of the restaurant signified. It’s the kind of questions arrogant Frenchmen love culture vulture Americans to ask.
“Why, monsieur, that is the French for water lilies,” he answered with relish over my ignorance of the Monet icon. Nor did it help that the bean soup my French tutor plopped in front of me was so mediocre it would have made Camden’s Campbells wince.
But I can deal with lousy soup more easily than I can a Monet museum minus Monets. Postcards, T-shirts, mugs—you name a genre of tourist “I was there” ephemera, and it was on sale in the great studio where once some of the most interesting Impressionist canvases were executed.
A walk through Monet’s house is a wall-to-wall encounter with everyday trivia from his daily life, none of it illuminating his artistic achievement. I had to find out elsewhere that Monet cherished Giverny precisely because it was isolated, a sequestration from Paris that he was only willing to share with his great friend and patron, the publisher / politician Georges Clemenceau.
Indeed, it was a source of bitterness that Monet’s presence there triggered a New Hope phenomenon, attracting other artists like flies—especially, perhaps, the Brooklyn couple, the F.W. MacMonnies! I’m happy to report that the ubiquitous philanthropist Walter Annenberg beat me there and kindly left an underground passage to the gardens that kept visitors from having to risk life and limb crossing that motorway I had walked along.
Alas, the gardens were awash with a visiting class of Ontario seniors, whose gifted grab-ass ploys sometimes obscured the more floral attractions. Actually, there was a genuineness to their mucking about that was authentic in a way the touristy genuflections were not.
Lots of souvenirs, but no Monet. Lots of money changing hands easily. Little art insight. Long, Disneyland lines. I pondered these paradoxes as I took a fast bus back to Vernon.
Just missing a train back to Paris, I decided to scout the town. At Vernon’s City Hall, there was a marvelous exhibition on how the French Revolution shook up the locals. It was just far enough away from Paris—about an hour’s drive today—to avoid the major turmoil, but close enough so that the bishop and the mayor both got dragged into the squabbles. Across the plaza was a splendid Gothic church. In both places, I was solitary in my pleasures.
But the real serendipity was the Musee de Vernon, opened since 1983 in an old mansion. Its painting collection is marginal, with Monet’s relatives and friends repped more than the master. And a lot of local history stuff. But the French have the very intelligent tradition of salting regional museums with first-class stuff that would otherwise languish unloved and unseen in Louvre attics.
Thus was I astounded by the quality of its animalier sculpture. It’s worth a trip from Paris just for its own sake. (Guarding the front door is a maquette for MacMonnies’ “Pioneer Woman” from Denver’s Kit Carson monument!)
Needless to say, in the two hours I whiled away in Vernon’s museum, I was by myself—if you don’t count the two guards. Now, by what idiotic calculus do droves of people fall all over themselves not seeing any Monet at Giverny at the same time that the Vernon museum is empty? Tourism corrupts art appreciation; high-powered tourism corrupts art appreciation completely.
You won’t find any Monets at Claude’s home—just Monet groupies.
All is not lost, however. The Readers Digest mogulette, Lila DeWitt Wallace, has endowed an artist-in-residence scheme at Giverny. And the "homages à Monet" left behind by the transient young artists were a joy to behold at Vernon.
Museum curators are so eager to fiddle their bottom lines (or even to just break even in inflationary times as their ambitions outstrip their resources) that they end up corrupting the art process. Simulcra dissimulate. Turnstile-clicking mania diminishes true access to the humanizing experience of great art.
Heh, don’t let my dyspeptic ruminations about the Giverny / Vernon audience anomalies discourage you from going to Baltimore to see the Boston Monets: I love Monet too much to rest content in Easy Monetless Monet.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 15, 1992