Deja vu

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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)

“On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt” 1868


“Impression Sunrise” 1872


“Bahnhof Saint Lazare in Paris” 1877


“Strasse nach Vetheuil im Winter” 1879

          Jean-Marie Toulgouat (1927-2006)

“Giverny, France” 1982


“Purple Flowers, Reflections” 1986


“Avenue Of Trees” 1993


“Le flamboginant de l’automne” 1999

          The thrill of Giverny by Pat Viles, USA  

“Snow Day”
mixed media painting
by Pat Viles

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  

original painting
by Sonia Gadra

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?     There is 1 comment for Out of mind experience? by Sonia Gadra
From: Sonia Gadra — Nov 30, 2012

Is that your job? What does one do with the canvas that has been copied? I am a novice painter, and copy things for learning purposes, I never thought someone would actually get paid to do it . . . Please tell me more of a copyist career. thanks.

  Scottish roots premonition in Alberta by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“A Morning at Medicine Lake”
watercolour painting
by Lorna Dockstader

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. There are 3 comments for Scottish roots premonition in Alberta by Lorna Dockstader
From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Nov 30, 2012

Very interesting modern take on watercolour painting, with a successful result – I really like it, particularly the white-streaked mountain. But what puzzles me is why this is not continued in the treatment of the sky? It is in the traditional watercolour style, very beautiful and effective, but it somehow looks out of place. I would be very interested to hear from Lorna as to why she chose to do this.

From: Gentlehawk James — Nov 30, 2012

Great painting, love all of it…..and I’ll bet that you’ve been an artist “in your Passion” for many my next one, I plan to be a better artist, own a vinyard and fly over it in my paraglider..we are all ONE, having FUN! Create a good’un!

From: Greg White — Nov 30, 2012

Patsy, this is exactly how Medicine Lake area looks like. Great job Lorna!

  A road traveled before by Phil Carroll, USA  

“Up Hill Chaddsford”
oil painting
by Phil Carroll

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. There are 4 comments for A road traveled before by Phil Carroll
From: Shirley Fachilla — Nov 30, 2012

Beautiful and very evocative painting.

From: Lorraine Bugera — Nov 30, 2012

Thanks for posting this painting, it certainly provides a re-experience for me. Not only can I see but feel and smell this place and time. Makes it a great painting to me!

From: Susan Brown — Nov 30, 2012

Maybe you lived there in one of your past lives, and really did build that wall.

From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — Dec 04, 2012

Phil Carroll, your painting ‘Up Hill Chaddsford’ draws me in. The light glowing over the horizon beckons and gives warmth to your predominant blues of the snow and sky. You’ve used rhythm in the lines of the snow and grasses and in the overall composition. I was born and raised not far from Eastend, Saskatchewan, with its rolling hills, scrub brush and COLD winters. Takes me back, it does. Very beautiful painting!

  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  

original painting
by Susan Marx

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  

“Coal Harbour # 5, Vancouver, BC”
oil painting
by Ian Semple

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  

“Lifetime Bird List”
mixed media painting
by Mary Beth Dodson

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. There are 2 comments for Poetic inspiration at Giverny by Mary Beth Dodson
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 30, 2012


From: Janet Blair — Dec 02, 2012

Charming painting.

  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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Deja vu

From: Sybil Minora — Nov 26, 2012

Ha! What a story but is it true? There appears to be too many slips to keep this one afloat, a charming little tale nonetheless.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 27, 2012

I should probably think this through before I write…but where is the deja vu here? Isn’t deja vu (already seen) the feeling that you have been somewhere before? It is thought to be a mild form of a seizure.

From: Jarvis Constant — Nov 27, 2012

“I could swear I have been here, done this, before” is more likely when you are tired or doing repetitious work. Such as painting.

From: Jacques Coulombe — Nov 27, 2012

There is some evidence that deja vu is linked to what is known as an “ischemic event.” This can be a temporary moment of forgetting or reflecting back that is caused by some sort of interruption in blood flow to the cerebral cortex. The condition becomes more common as one grows older and may be particularly prevalent in those who live sedentary lives.

From: Rose — Nov 27, 2012

Deja vu that Robert is describing sounds more like a meaningful, emotional connection to something from the past that we know of, but did not witness in person. I don’t think that he refers to those meaningless moments when our brain just loses track – such as in an ischemic event.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Nov 27, 2012

I had a déjà vu every time I copied works of old masters – which was exactly 3 times. Once a Vermeer, once a Vlaminck and once a Carmichael. Each time I experienced an lovely lightness and speed of brush. Colors were mixed with certainty and strokes fell just right effortlessly. The experiences were humbling and deliciously eerie. There is much to be said about what took place. Rationally, I think that I selected those paintings because they were a great fit with my personal taste and patterns, but I am open to some other meaning. In any case, I felt a great learning and encouragement. Even now, when I remember those experiences, I feel wonderfully elated. I didn’t do any more copying – maybe because I am afraid that this unique feeling might wear out, or because I learned that I should seek elation from my own work.

From: Cici Porter — Nov 27, 2012

I love you Robert Genn. I say that every time I read one of your posts that is particularly inspiring, and today it was all in your first sentence: One foggy morning, I was painting on the edge of the Seine within a few miles of Monet’s home in Giverny. I want to casually drop a sentence like that someday too, and your life and your newsletter lets me imagine that just such a reality is possible.

From: Jane Adams — Nov 27, 2012

I recently had an exhibition (my first one woman show), here in Toronto, all about BOATS. With a special emphasis on canoes, because I was a prairie marshland girl and spent my youth in canoes. For the exhibition I made some canoes out of willow and dogwood branches and Korean paper. People loved them and I sold most of them. Also on the wall I had a photo of my father, in a canoe with friends, as he paddled for Canada in the 1924 Commonwealth Games, PLUS his two souvenir paddles from the event.

From: Gail Konantz — Nov 27, 2012

Giverny is a magical place, but once, when we were traveling in Japan, we saw the identical lily pond with a rowboat pulled up along the side just as it is in Monet’s garden. It was in a temple ground in Kyoto. Monet collected Japanese prints and was certainly inspired by a Japanese sensitivity. The Kyoto garden was a deja vu in reverse for us.

From: Bev Rodin — Nov 27, 2012

My husband and I were at Giverny about a decade ago. It was beautiful but being midsummer it was packed with tourists. There was very little opportunity for photography and really none for painting as all the viewpoints were packed with people. The great thing is that so many people enjoy gardens. Did you do any paintings of the region that you are posting as well as I have already seen Monet’s in France?

From: GeorgeAnn Moore — Nov 27, 2012

My father was my first art teacher. He was an artist and a doctor with his medical office off one side of his waiting room and his art studio off the other side. Often when I am working and hit a rough spot I feel his arm on my shoulder and hear again his words of encouragement. I know he is reaching out to guide me again. My father lives on through me and now my son as he continues the tradition of creating with art and music.

From: Jean Burman — Nov 27, 2012
From: Grace Karczewski — Nov 27, 2012

I still like Claude Monet’s paintings better, but I enjoyed looking at Toulgouat’s paintings. The first looks very much like the Monet impressionistic style of painting and the rest seems he developed his own style of impressionistic painting.

From: Blair Pessemier — Nov 27, 2012
From: Rick Woods — Nov 27, 2012

Finished a watercolor last month that featured a derelict Rambler station wagon, sitting on tireless rusty rims by the highway. I really liked the subject in any case, but that Rambler had always seemed especially familiar. It finally came to me the day I was signing the painting. Way back in high school, my best friend and I went on our first date in his family’s car, a Rambler Classic just like it. I think his mother was driving, and it had that new car smell.

From: Corrine Hull — Nov 27, 2012

I live in Indianapolis and frequently paint nearby in Brookville, IN. The American Impressionist, T.C. Steele painted there in the late 1800’s. I often have that sense of deja vu when I paint there. I have a definite feeling that he was standing in the spot I’ve chosen.

From: Barbara Gates — Nov 27, 2012

Jean, thank you so much for your video. I have Stage IV cancer and will probably never get to Giverny–if for no other reason than the length of the flight and my inability to walk very far (as of yet!). Your video took my breath away. I drank the beauty in. Thank you again.

From: Russ Hogger — Nov 27, 2012

I can’t say that I have had a deja vu experience of any kind, let alone one while painting.

From: James Ramsdell — Nov 28, 2012

Several years ago I painted this little village snow scene. While composing the picture I decided it needed a “stop” on the right side, to keep the viewer’s eye from wandering out of the picture, so I added a figure coming down the street. After I finished it and sat back to look at it, I had a wonderful deja vu experience. When I was a kid in school I used to take this route to visit my girl friend and when the weather was bad, she would meet half way. And there she was coming down the street! Boy, did that realization stop me in my tracks! And now your letter has given me deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say! Thanks for this posting and all your great letters, twice a week I always start my day with them!

From: Heidi Adkins — Nov 28, 2012
From: Penny Fox — Nov 28, 2012

Living on the Ohio River and watching reenactments of Lewis & Clark expeditions gives me a chill to know what great History is behind me.

From: Christl Kennedy — Nov 29, 2012

I love Monet and had no idea that his home had become open to the public so I Googled it right away to see the photos. Wow, sure takes your breath away and makes you feel like you can walk right into his paintings. Definitely on my to do list, especially since you are allowed to paint on site.

From: george gordon — Nov 29, 2012

I had a wonderful trip around France this past summer. Giverny is beautiful but a tourist trap- crowded and they do not allow photos inside the house -too bad the paintings are so wonderful. I wandered off into the town and was all alone- the feeling was calm and oddly comfortable- I wandered into the graveyard and said thanks to him for the beauty he left behind. Strange that on his gravestone it says forgive me. But Paris was full of odd feelings that I had been here before- and I felt so safe and comfortable- which is never how I normally feel when I’m traveling. My many photos watercolors and sketches will provide memories and inspiration to last forever. France is wonderful and the people were helpful and fantastic,if you can go it is so worth it.

From: jan — Nov 29, 2012

my initial reaction to this portrait is to see an individual who is not completely symetrical but is a little off, eyes, glasses and yet steady and this tells me something about this person’s character…I like it

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Nov 30, 2012

One solo week in Paris. Three trains to Giverny, somehow missed, but I finally got there on a perfect day in May. I sat on a bench and painted the bridge with a palette knife, my pochade perched on my lap. No masterpiece, but I will remember always how I felt surrounded by all that light and color. It was a pilgrimage.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 30, 2012

free associations…I have a beautiful black and white photograph I took of an old rowboat in the marshes at Giverny, but saw no old paintings on it. I know there is such an ineffable thing as genetic memory…I have magically found my way around supposedly strange places where my ancestors trod…Newport, RI, Toulouse, France, where I mustered up the courage at the Marie, to ask where might be the monument to the slain Huegenots. Also a spontaneous side trip to Bovina, MS where I found my ancestors’ graves. Thanks for this trip down genetic memory lane!

From: Rosie Jones — Nov 30, 2012

Synchronicity is another way to describe the coinciding of those two happenings, holding the image in your mind and then seeing it materialise before you. And who knows the working of the spirit world. I like to think Jean-Marie Toulgouat recognised a kindred spirit in Robert Genn painting on the riverbank and dropped in to say “Well Done!” It’s a beautiful story Robert thank you.

From: Ernest B. Bloch — Nov 30, 2012

There is far too much amateur work around these days that those who would be pleasant and encouraging try to say is half decent when it isn’t. Would-be artists need not only to be courageous in the assessment of their own work, but willingly submit to the criticisms of those with some understanding of quality.

From: Pat Wafer — Dec 01, 2012
From: Paula Dougherty — Dec 03, 2012

Living in Maine, I have a “deja vu” experience regularly, so to speak, when peering into my summer garden. There sits Monet’s flowers prospering gloriously, year after year! After I visited Giverny more than a dozen years ago, I strolled into the gift shop there. At the cash register, the woman before me put a thin envelope on the counter to purchase. It was full of a variety of seeds from Monet’s garden. So surprised, and thrilled was I to see Monet’s garden seeds available, I ventured back to get some. It took 2-3 years before I could plant the seeds as I moved in the process. Certainly, by then I did not think that they would grow. But, one did. It is a large yellow gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia). The flower has spread. And, looks something like the flowers in Claude’s painting, “Sunflowers” (1881)…only simpler and smaller with fewer petals. I am still in awe of the resilency of the plant and how fortunate I am to have it. I hereby share this flower story with artists and art lovers around the world…with an outpouring of compassion and peace.

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acrylic painting, 36 x 48 inches by Nadi Spencer, Three Rivers, CA, USA

  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.”