‘Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy - review

PUBLISHED: 11:10 03 February 2016 | UPDATED: 11:10 03 February 2016

Gertrude's Boots

Gertrude's Boots


We slightly take for granted that great artists paint wonderful still lifes and we acknowledge that works by artists throughout the centuries provides important historical reference.

Claude Monet is an example of an artist often applauded for his paintings of the natural world but were those magnificent blooms merely subject matter, or did his horticultural interest dig deeper than that? A new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse, may change the way you view some very famous paintings, and also your garden.

Great changes in horticulture in the 19th century inspired many artists to take a greater interest in the natural world and to explore their styles of painting. New species introduced to Europe from Asia and the Americas led to intensely coloured hybrids and a new and vibrant palette of colours. Inspired to develop their own gardens, they became more involved with the practical side of horticulture and found the two pursuits were perfect bed fellows.

One of these artist-gardeners was Monet, famous for his paintings of lilies at his gardens at Giverny, but now also recognized as a practical gardener and knowledgeable horticulturist. After purchasing his house at Giverny in1890, Monet re-designed the gardens with carefully planned planting schemes and the employment of at least six gardeners who cultivated over 70 species of trees and flowers.

In the garden Monet found an endless source of creative inspiration for his art. His beautiful painting, Spring Flowers (1864), is the introduction to the Royal Academy’s glorious exhibition, ‘Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse’. In this huge still life, pelargoniums and peonies mix with species new to Europe such as Persian Lilac and Weigela Amabilis, and Monet uses gorgeous intense reds and pinks which contrast with the richly dark foliage.

Friends of Monet’s such as Renoir and Gustav Caillebotte shared his passion for horticulture and in this exhibition their letters reveal a shared excitement at the changes taking place. Gardening as the leisure pursuit we enjoy today was beginning to take shape with the middle classes taking great pleasure in floral displays and horticultural societies and gardening magazines becoming popular. This emerging floriculture and the ‘modern garden’ in the late 19th century provided perfect inspiration for the Impressionists.

Artists began to work more ‘en plein air’, and their gardens became their studios. Caillebotte and Monet were fanatical about plant planning and both constructed greenhouses and grew new hybrids. Renoir however, preferred wild, untamed spaces and Pissarro stayed loyal to the more traditional kitchen garden. But whatever their chosen style, the rise of the artist-gardener was spreading across Europe and this exhibition shows works by Scandinavian artists such as Laurits Tuxen whose sumptuous work Rhododendrons in Tuxen’s Garden (1917) in mind blowing in both colour and composition. The Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla planned his garden in Madrid wearing the hat of both painter and gardener - his oil painting Garden of the Sorolla House (1918-19) displays his talent for capturing light and shade and is a wonderful visual insight into his carefully planned garden.

The curators of Painting the Modern Garden, Ann Dumas and William Robinson, have arranged the rooms thematically, leading visitors through the Impressionists’ visions of light to International Gardens, the Avant-Gardens (sic), Monet’s Early Years at Giverny, and gardens of reverie and dreams. The ‘green room’, set within one of the larger rooms, reveals a glorious painting of Louis Comfort Tiffany painted by Sorolla - a visual feast of rich blues and yellows, it shows Tiffany painting in a garden abundant with huge blooms. Also in this room, ‘the chrysanthemum wall’ reveals wonderful work by Monet, Bunker and Tissot. Confined within these green hedge-like walls, one feels almost overwhelmed to be surrounded by such magnificent work and glorious colour. Rarely seen works by Pierre Bonnard, Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky also grace the walls.

Spring FlowersSpring Flowers

Along with canvases and paintings in every size and colour, the exhibition contains cabinets (constructed to look like cold frames of the era) with items that expand on the whole artist-gardener world. In a room called ‘Making a Garden’ there are gardening books, seed catalogues, botanical drawings, letters and plans from Monet and friends showing how much work went on back stage. The British horticulturalist William Robinson employed artists such as Alfred Parsons to illustrate garden features with beautiful drawings and pen and ink botanical drawings. Also in this room, a favourite painting of mine, a fabulous oil painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson.

Most visitors flocking to this most sumptuous of art exhibitions will want to see Monet’s water lilies and they will no be disappointed. Monet struggled for years to master painting the pink and red lilies on his Giverny pond - he would get up early, visit the garden several times a day in different light, and paint many canvases at a time, re-visiting each one with a new approach. In 1902 he began to focus entirely on the surface of the water, the refection of the sky and the water lilies. The challenges of capturing the light were perplexing for Monet and he destroyed scores of unsatisfactory works. However, in 1909 he exhibited 48 of the paintings at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris and critics praised the paintings and the way they ‘seemed to transcend time and space’.

Monet was uplifted with this achievement but the death of his second wife Alice in 1911 devastated him and, with failing eyesight, he stopped painting for three years. In 1914, he returned to his water lilies, working exclusively on them and the Irises and other plants that surrounded the water’s edge. As the First World War erupted around him, he stayed at home in Giverny and said it was his patriotic duty to paint. Still suffering from grief, and distressed at the outbreak of war, his painting became more sombre with deep-blue and violet tones, but his passion for painting remained undefeated. The Agapanthus Triptych (1916-19) is a glorious study of the famous lilies and the pond at Giverny - huge at four metres x 2 metres high, this is the first time that the three sections of the work have been seen together in the UK.

Monet is arguably the most important painter of gardens in the history of art. Which came first the flowers or the painting? As early as the 1860’s he combined the two but he always felt fortunate to experience both.

“I perhaps owe it to flowers,” he wrote, “that I became a painter”.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy from January 30 to April 20. www.royalacademy.co.uk; 0207 300 8027

The exhibition is co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Sponsored by BNY Mellon, Partner of the Royal Academy of Arts.

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