One foggy morning, I was painting on the edge of the Seine within a few miles of Monet’s home in Giverny. In the distance and coming upstream toward me was what looked like an American birch-bark canoe. Barely able to make out the unlikely apparition in the mist, I figured the canoe to be haphazardly made, and its occupants to be two teenage boys. Sure enough, as the canoe came alongside, it was a patched-up mishmash paddled by a couple of kids who had probably overindulged on The Last of the Mohicans.
It didn’t hurt that I knew a wonderful story about Jean-Marie Toulgouat. Born in Giverny in 1927, the year after Claude Monet died, Toulgouat, as a boy, had taken painting lessons from Blanche Hoschede Monet, one of Claude Monet’s adopted daughters. Sometime near the beginning of the Second World War, Jean-Marie and a school-friend built an American Indian-style canoe. The story goes that they soon ran out of proper boat-building materials.
“Blanche provided the answer to the boys’ problem,” reported the London Daily Telegraph on the occasion of Jean-Marie’s death in 2006. “In old age, Claude Monet had been in the habit of having his gardener burn those of his pictures which he had come to consider not good enough. Blanche had tried to impede this by instructing the gardener covertly to store the condemned paintings in the garage. She now told Jean-Marie that he could finish off the bow and stern of the canoe with pieces of these canvases. Thus Jean-Marie and his friend paddled the Seine in a boat partly constructed from the works of Claude Monet.”
Toulgouat grew up to become a popular painter. But his greatest legacy was his restoration of Monet’s home and garden in Giverny. The property, which was almost derelict by 1970, is now a National Historic Site. More than a million visitors pass through the studio, home and garden every year. On Mondays you can paint on the premises. If you get a chance, please drop me a note. I’m curious if others have experienced a deja vu while painting.
Just in case you’re wondering, Toulgouat’s canoe was later reported to have been burned.
PS: “Lots of people will protest that it’s quite unreal and that I’m out of my mind, but that’s just too bad.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: I’ve had several of my best deja vu in France, particularly in Brittany and Normandy where my deGennes Huguenot ancestors came from. Maybe the phenomenon has something to do with the nature of painting itself. Whether we like it or not, every work of art is a reworking of something else, of something that happened before. Even the wildest abstractionist on the very cutting edge knows in her heart that a gesture, a stroke or combinations of colour or line have somehow been done before and are merely coming around again. “We go forward,” said Marshall McLuhan, “looking in the rearview mirror.”
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Jean-Marie Toulgouat (1927-2006)
The thrill of Giverny
by Pat Viles, USA
I, too, have painted at Giverny. For two weeks, with Maggie, a friend, I painted there every day. The spirit of Monet was everywhere. We were given a key to the gardens and allowed to go in and out at first light, leaving when the museum opened at 10:00am and returning at 5:00 pm when it closed and stayed until dark. During the day we painted all over the countryside. This was arranged with the Reader’s Digest Foundation by sending documentation of our work and a written letter of the reason why we wanted to paint there. While there, Maggie and I met some wonderful French artists.
Your letters make my days when they arrive! They are such fun and informative and especially appreciated. Also, I enjoy receiving emails from all over the world thanks to my listing on your Premium Artists Listings! I have even sold some works thanks to the listing.
Epiphany in Mexico
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
I’m a printmaker who sometimes paints. Nearly 20 years ago I was making a mixed-media (collagraph plus silkscreen) print of an imaginary archaeological ruin. (Thinking at the time of the likely ultimate demise of our own civilization, haha.) I set it in a fantasy landscape based on experiences in the American Southwest: looking down from a high place onto canyons and rivers — part of a small series of imaginary ruins I was doing at the time. My graphic ‘ruin’ featured broken pillars, eroded sloped walls, inexplicable recesses, etc. About ten years later we were in Oaxaca, Mexico on a tour of pre-Columbian sites. Our bus took us up the steep mountainside overlooking the city, to the famous Zapotec citadel of Monte Alban. As I walked up onto the promontory, the ancient plaza laid out before me, I saw an image uncannily similar to the work mentioned above — complete with a vista 1300 or so feet below. The experience felt more archetypal than just “coincidental.” Perhaps some of the imagery can be traced back to slides shown in an old art history survey course, but I was certainly not conscious of that at the time I did the work — I’d never been to Monte Alban before.
Out of mind experience?
by Sonia Gadra, Frederick, MD, USA
As a copyist at the National Gallery of Art, déjà vu is something I experience often. While copying some of the most famous and wonderful masterpieces which I feel so privileged to be able to do, I am transported back in time. Today I began Claude Monet The Bridge at Argenteuil and completed Woman with a Parasol about a month ago. I am transported back to Giverny and forget that I’m in the wonderful National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. with a crowd watching me paint. I become transfixed and talk to the artist asking for guidance on how to paint a particular passage that I may be struggling with. Could I be having an out of mind experience?
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Scottish roots premonition in Alberta
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
We were painting watercolours along the shoreline of Medicine Lake, Alberta. The low mist was hanging over the mountains, the craggy rocks jutted out everywhere, amongst the fresh greens of summer. A soft rain was falling, and just as I went to protect my painting, I knew I had done this before, in Scotland. The memory was, and is, unforgettable. Many years afterwards I learned of my father’s surname, Geddes, him being of Celtic descent. Scotland was calling to me, and as we landed in Glasgow, I knew I was going home to a place I had never been. The deja vu experience at Medicine Lake had indeed been a unique type of genetic memory. And if we are all universally connected, there are probably many artists who have deja vu memories of you.
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A road traveled before
by Phil Carroll, USA
I have for years with many of the paintings I have created had a déjà vu moment as if somewhere in the past I had painted this or that scene before. Yet the most interesting moment of déjà vu came when I was 8 or 9 visiting Gardner, Massachusetts where my father was born. I was riding in a car with my parents down a country road near Gardner when the road turned to the right. At the end of the turn was an old stone wall, one stone carefully balanced on another, with a large field behind the wall. It was for only a moment I glimpsed that wall, but it was as if I knew every stone and in my mind had somehow been involved in its building. Seared into my mind I have never forgotten that experience and have not spoken of it very often publicly or otherwise and as a small child would have known nothing of Déjà vu.
Perhaps as artists we have done it so many times it feels like a road traveled before. Perhaps we have painted it before and when we experience that Déjà vu, at that moment, we have finally gotten the painting and the brush strokes just the way we knew they should be.
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A Monet painting returns
by Kathryn Kaser, Kennewick, WA, USA
I started writing to a German girl in 1955 when I was a freshman in high school in Iowa City, IA. She sent me a number of color-illustrated paperback books on the Impressionists painters, giving me knowledge to start a lifelong love of art.
My favorite in those days was Monet. After getting married and moving to Washington State, I bought a large, high quality print of Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” and had it framed. I understand it was one of the highest selling pieces of art work ever and was stolen at one time. When I got divorced, I left it with my ex-husband to the delight of his new wife, also a painter. (She is now my friend.)
My German penpal, Erika Grutz Holzach, and I reconnected, via Internet in 2003, after losing track of each long ago. Erika had a career doing classic-art illustrated health informational animations for Bavarian TV. When she learned I no longer had the Monet print, she replaced it as a gift when she came to visit. I was also given several pieces of art done by her former husband, Robby Holzach.
A merging of psyches?
by Susan Marx, Orange, NJ, USA
They call me Mme. Monet in jest, but they are right. I have inherited the soul of Monet.
I had been painting a long while before I spent that decisive summer in Monet’s garden. That was when Monet spoke to me. I think his spirit was always with me, but that is where he made himself known to me. And it was an epiphany. My paintings took on a new life.
I walked on his Japanese bridge and painted on his Japanese bridge and then, I went beyond it. I have always liked impressionism, but now it has become part of me. It is an expression of my soul. Late Monet carried forward with the emotional brushwork and heart of Susan Marx.
This presence is always with me. I love color. I see color everywhere. I am drawn to a specific spot for some indefinable reason. I set up my canvas and paints. And look and look and look. Something catches my eye. I load up my palette. Pick up a brush, holding it as a conductor would hold his baton, and begin.
At that point, I don’t speak to the canvas; instead the canvas speaks to me. Whose voice is that telling me what to put where? Has Monet’s psyche merged with mine? My feet are barefoot feeling the grass; I smell the flowers in front of me. I am transported. I paint but lose the concept of time. Fast, faster, passionately painting, furiously painting. I cannot get the colors down fast enough. Then suddenly I need air. I stop and stand back. The séance is over. I have returned to the present. I think Monet is looking down from above, smiling.
Déjà vu a dynamic entity
by Ian Semple, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I believe my best and worse paintings are directly related to the extent of the emotional déjà vu recall of their subject nature. Furthermore, I believe that déjà vu is a dynamic entity, very personal and fueled by conscious, creative recall, rather than just casual memory. As such, the imprint of that recall is likely to play a pivotal role in the rendering of a painting, be in its composition and stylistic interpretation.
For me, and in reflection of my life as an exploration geologist, every painting I have rendered, and with particular reference to my “Working Wilderness Heritage” series, has been intensely driven by the dynamics of the déjà vu of the natural world as I have experienced it. The challenge for me as an artist is to match the art with the déjà vu. That the latter is sometimes more successful than the former is I guess the nature of the beast.
Poetic inspiration at Giverny
by Mary Beth Dodson, North Platte, NB, USA
Oh yes, I have had déjà vu, and at that very place. I was in the process of putting together a book of my poems when I realized I did not have a poem about art, and art had been my life. The last poem I wrote for that book, The Same Moon Rises was called “If I Had Known Monet” and the first line was “He would have asked me to Giverny.” With the sale of my books, I was able to travel there on my own with a friend. And nine months after I wrote that poem, I was sitting in front of Monet’s pink house, painting the Grand Allee with its nasturtiums filling the path. I put down my paints and picked up my notebook and wrote “Monet’s Answer.” It was like dictation, and I was in awe. It was his invitation to me to come to Giverny. Later I made a full sheet with the two poems and filled the edges with watercolor postcards I had painted everywhere I went in Giverny. I stayed for ten days, painting every day, all day, every medium. On Mondays the gardens are closed to the public and I painted two Mondays. But I had written ahead and they were ready for me and gave me permission to paint after five p.m. every day also. The workers would tip their hats to me and leave, and I was free to stay until dark and let myself out through one of his studios, which is now a garage. Once in awhile a person is able to think, “Life doesn’t get any better than this,” and that was one of those times.
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Changes at Giverny
by Cello Bennett, Cape Coral, FL, USA
Your letter today meant a lot to me particularly because my late husband Gale Bennett and I ran an art school in Giverny which Gale founded in 1996 — ArtStudy Giverny. Although it’s now closed, for 12 years our students enjoyed the privilege of which you write, painting in Monet’s Gardens on Mondays. Alas — this is no more. Since 2008 the Gardens have been open to tourists Mondays, so the opportunity to paint in the gardens while the 14 or so gardeners do their work is a privilege of the past. Painters can still get permission to paint weekday evenings for a couple of hours after the Gardens close for the day to tourists. To verify this information, kindly contact the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny at (011) 33 232 51 28 21.
A good acquaintance from the Giverny time — her father was one of the original American painters who came there, and she re-purchased the old family house some years ago and restored it beautifully — was very close to Jean-Marie Toulgouat.
Enjoy the past comments below for Deja vu…
acrylic painting, 36 x 48 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Liz Train of Hawaii, USA, who wrote, “I had the good fortune to paint in Monet’s garden in 1982 when I took a “Painting in Paris” tour with the University of Hawaii. It was truly one of the highlights of my life.”
And also Moncy Barbour who wrote, “It was a shame to burn the boat.”