Writing inspirations: a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny

A photo I took of Monet’s bridge using 35mm Fujicolor Superia film, 200 asa, 1/125 at f.8. Scanned from the print, watermarked and reduced to upload but otherwise untouched digitally.  This is how it came out of the camera. Monet wasn’t an artist…he was a photographer.

Some years ago I spent an afternoon in the garden of impressionist painter Claude Monet, at Giverny, northwest of Paris. Since his death in 1926 it has been made into a museum – and, apart from the road slashing between house and lily pond – is pretty much as it was when he lived there.

Monet loved this garden because of the way the light played through it, and he was interested in light. That was what impressionism was all about; light. They broke the rules of classical painting to capture something more than a literal image of the scene. And when it came down to it, what they were really capturing wasn’t the light – it was the way the light made us feel, the ‘impression’ it gave the viewer. I have his painting Ete on the wall, and I can certainly feel what it would have been like to stand in that golden field on that windy day with sun dappling across waving grasses.

Another photo I took of Giverny, same specifications. Film is massively more sensitive than CCD’s when it comes to capturing the subtleties of light.

I am a huge, huge fan of impressionism, because of that emotional content. Impressionist paintings are inspirational to look at. And their ideas shortly flowed into other art. Claude Debussy, the French composer (1862-1918), wrote what has been called ‘impressionist’ music, deliberately following the painters in their quest to elicit a specific emotion. Debussy took that a step further, hoping to evince a particular sense of colour in the mind of the listener.

Claude Monet: Ete (1874). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The colours in the print I own are considerably richer and deeper.

To me, that is what writing is about, too. It isn’t so much about the words or the content – it’s about how those words, and that content, make the reader feel. It is about the author trying to control what that feeling is – using words, structure and control of phrasing and content to create explicit and specific emotions in the reader. That’s true for non-fiction as much as for fiction. And that, to me, is the essence of ‘art’. It is a creation by one individual that elicits emotion in another. Ideally, a specific and intended emotion. And it is defined, as Frank Zappa once put it, by whatever frame we put around it – and by what we decide to fill that frame with.

Writers are artists, just as much as Debussy was – or Monet. And we can draw inspiration for ourselves, as writers in our own medium, from their art in theirs.

What do you figure? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

10 thoughts on “Writing inspirations: a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny

  1. I agree completely. Writing that makes you almost experience the story or character is what I love most and strive to create. Not merely to know what happens but also to experience it, to imagine how it might have been and respond.

    It is interesting how film has adapted to this theory and uses music as much as image to press those buttons within the audience’s emotional range. I don’t always enjoy the film experience for this reason, because sometimes the experiences are too shocking (even when they aren’t but the music makes us feel as if something terrible is going to happen) too close and the effects too much for me to experience real pleasure. All to do with my personal wiring I suspect. 🙂

    It is interesting about the light and impressionism, does it assume that all light/impressionism is a positive or joyous experience then?


    1. I think they were trying to present the positive side of the experience, certainly in the paintings. A lot of the impressionists subsequently convened in Paris – the Moulin Rouge in particular; and some ‘impressionist’ music – I’m thinking Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie’ in particular – was designed to capture the feeling of ennui, the morning after one of their wild nights there.


    1. Thank you! I took them with my old Pentax film SLR, I was using 36-shot rolls (which I was eking out a bit) and I must have blown about half a roll there alone. It was almost impossible to miss taking good photos – the place was fabulous, kept in superb ‘Monet’ order by the curators and gardeners. I don’t know about others, but for me the ‘art’ of writing and the ‘art’ of photography are much the same thing, in that they are expressions of my conceptualisation of things..


  2. Beautiful photos! Makes me want to go back to France!

    I don’t know much about art history but I’ve sometimes wondered what extent the emergence of photography played in the direction that artists took from the mid 19th century to early 20th century. It seems to me that it must’ve been a turbulent period for artists, when for the first time they no longer had the monopoly on replicating visual reality in a way that could be shared. The exploration of sharing emotion through paintings in new and interesting ways seems like a pretty good reaction to the emergence of photographers.

    It also interests me that so much of the driving force behind impressionism came from France, which is also where a lot of the pioneers of photographic methods were based. It really must have been an exciting time and place to live!


    1. I think it was. That late nineteenth century brought all sorts of artistic flourishings – and all that drive, to my mind, was French. They even invented colour photography, around 1907 and based on potato starch, which had the look of an impressionist image (not least because of the colour distortions). And they were still doing it in the twentieth century – to this day we call modernism ‘art deco’ because of the French branch of it, which had that name.


  3. If called upon to answer the question: “What do good writers do?” I would respond with your exact words. ” it’s about how those words, and that content, make the reader feel.”

    I spend a lot of time in gardens of all types. I am always amazed at how each has its own personality. Even my own gardens feel different and each draws me to it for different reasons. Art, in all its forms, draws from and plays on the viewers emotions and personal experiences.


    1. I absolutely agree. It’s curious, indeed, how nature can move us. As a Kiwi bloke I am not a great fan of flower gardens (they lack V8 motors and power tools…) – yet, when my wife drags me along to various such places, or even when I look at what she’s planted outside, there’s no question about their inspirational nature; their art – and a lot of that, for me, is observing the pleasure that passers-by are deriving from them.


  4. I have become so close to my characters, I often tear when I am reading before an audience, present their pain.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War


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