FIONA’S SPRING BLOG, 2016

At a time when gardens are becoming a riot of spring colour, it seems appropriate to focus on the recent Painting the Modern Garden, from Monet to Matisse exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), which I was lucky enough to visit twice. With over 250 exhibits and all around there was much debate about both gardening and painting techniques. Quite fitting, given that subsequently Gertrude Jekyll, one of Britain’s best known garden designers, started her working life as a painter, so was familiar with an artist’s palette of colours.
The paintings exhibited at the RA included garden settings from patios to public parks and reflected the Impressionist and other painting styles, as well as the trend to travel to experience different light and gardening climates or locations. As well as their paintings including the painter’s families, such as Pissarro’s children on the steps amidst towering sunflowers, letters exchanged between painters testify that there seem to have been a lot of friendships, competition, one-upmanship and different preferences and ‘showing off’ between artists, those who had the latest plants or styles and the subjects or garden owners themselves. As they say, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. For example: Pissarro, the ‘cabbage painter’, asked Monet his advice about planting. One of Monet’s garden paintings with profusely coloured dahlias make his garden seem rural but its urban setting is emphasised by Renoir, while Pissarro’s spring plum tree display is trumped by Monet, who painted a small orchard of them! Caillebotte’s brand new, huge oval-roofed greenhouse dominates one of his garden paintings and Sordla’s richly coloured painting shows his client, Louis Comfort Tiffany in his Long Island garden. Monet gardened enthusiastically at rented properties before settling at Giverny, where he eventually managed to extend the garden by buying up an old railway line and getting permission to divert and enlarge the river running through the land beyond. Finally, while Monet’s fascination with light and texture on his lily pond is well known, he also painted chrysanthemums and lilies, illustrating the latest varieties he had acquired.
Most of those I know who also saw the exhibition agreed with me that it was a very interesting collection of paintings, some of which, at least ‘in the flesh’, were new to us. Highlights for one self-confessed Singer Sargent groupie included his sensitive painting Lily, Lily, Rose of the two Vickers children with a watering can. I too loved this very simply composed picture, beautifully executed with wonderful creamy whites predominating. Others particularly enjoyed the Klee, Klimt and Kandinsky and, like myself, were stunned by Santiago Rusinol’s gardens, which conveyed a wonderfully evocative atmosphere through colours, possibly influenced as much by the effects of distantly exploding shells than a mere sunset. Nonetheless, some visitors obviously preferred the more delicate Scandinavian palette, so hopefully they also enjoyed the recent Dulwich Picture Gallery’s recent exhibition, Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup, which also contained some illustrations of blossom and gardens in the north of Europe.
In conclusion, while visitor opinion varied about the use of display lanterns and cold frames (sadly they did not contain real plants), there were certainly some wonderful examples of colourful gardens and contemporary horticultural literature. I also agree totally with William H. Robinson’s closing remark in his introduction chapter within the catalogue that “… By framing these paintings in the context of broad artistic movements, as well as social and political events, the exhibition seeks to provide a deeper understanding of how gardens served as a universal, multifaceted source of inspiration for artists of the modern era”.
An inspiration for the 21st century gardener (and artist) indeed!
May 2016

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