When Claude Monet moved to Giverny in 1883, he was 43 years old and a recent widower with two children. His life, once so difficult he attempted suicide, impoverished and unrecognized, was beginning to turn around as he painted what would later be recognized as masterpieces in the years following his wife Camille’s death at 32.
But if the first half of his life had been marked by sorrow and hard times, the next 43 years would witness the opposite. Monet’s most iconic and valuable art was inspired by the gardens he not only painted, but also designed in Normandy.
The first time I saw Claude Monet’s paintings, we were trying to take in as much of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as we could consume in a single day. Discovered at the end of one second floor hallway, his giant canvases of lily ponds were the most beautiful art I’d ever seen.
Deep blues and greens offset with pinks and whites, pictures abstracted by Monet’s deliberate concentration on the quality of light in a single moment, they were immediately and simultaneously both real and unreal.
We went on to see art in as many of the great museums in the U. S. and Europe as we could make time for. We saw less known, local art in Seattle, emotionally charged paintings telling biblical stories in old churches in Rome, and modern art that rewarded you most when you worked at it in Washington and New York.
But in some ways, it is always in hope of repeating that Monet moment in New York.
When it came time to merge a cat and Monet, Deborah picked the garden in Giverny as the most perfect place. She chose Billy because he’s the most obvious art lover among our cats.
We first noticed when Billy interrupted a nap on our antic hutch to stare at a Matisse print on the wall above it. He did it calmly as if appreciating something about it. He didn’t need a reason to enjoy something that wasn’t edible.
And no, although we asked, Billy never made any effort to explain.
There was one other thing about Billy that made him perfect for the lily pond. He enjoyed looking at himself in the mirror as much as he enjoyed looking at Matisse.
The experts will tell you, at least the majority will, that cats haven’t enough awareness of themselves as individuals to understand they are seeing reflections of themselves when they look into a mirror. Without wading into the science, I will say that, whatever Billy saw, he liked.
When Billy wandered into Monet’s garden, making his way through tall grasses until he found a pink pond decorated with lily pads, it wasn’t water he wanted. As much as he loved drinking water, he loved gazing at himself as much, his image reflected back from the water in the way only Claude Monet could imagine.