Impressionists, an evident choice for an exhibition about gardens
I have visited ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy four times. On each visit, I could almost smell the scent of flowers looking at Monet’s Spring Flowers left from the entrance. Impressionists were an obvious choice for an exhibition about gardens – as opposed to Romantics who would favour a primitive and untouched nature. The Royal Academy naturally uses Monet as a starting point (and finale) in its very successful exhibition.
Gardening became a fashionable pastime…
Gardening was a popular pastime first among and then outside royal circles, spreading to artists. Cross-breeding was fashionable and resulted in noble varieties such as the Dahlia Imperiale. Early on, Monet was interested in gardening in his own houses before later shaping the glorious gardens of Giverny. In Giverny, Monet planted new hybrid water lilies prepared by specialist horticulturist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac.
… and a passion for Monet
Anyone who has visited Giverny – an easy day trip from Paris – knows Monet’s penchant for gardening. But the RA exhibition demonstrates that it was not just a hobby for Monet but a passion, which may have ranked equally with painting for the French Impressionist. Monet declared: “I owe it to flowers that I have become a painter”. Monet and his friend Caillebotte regularly exchanged letters on gardening, while the post-impressionist and Nabi Bonnard preferred wild gardens as opposed to cultivated gardens favoured by Monet.
Willow branches hanging mournfully – a metaphor for war
The RA exhibition also wanted to convey that the gardens were not only contemplative. Monet and Matisse did not paint explicit images of war but expressed their feelings through their depiction of flowers and plants. In Monet’s Willow series in 1918, willow branches are shown hanging mournfully. Monet stubbornly remained in Giverny in 1914, feeling it was his patriotic duty to continue painting.
Paintings are worth a close look
I remember my friend making fun of me looking at impressionist paintings so closely at Musée Marmottan. I did the same at Royal Academy, marvelling at the details of each flower – generally very intricate for Caillebotte and simplistic for Manet. On closer examination, I could imagine Monet applying paint. Impressionists – and post-impressionists – were able to depict an atmosphere, such as an intense sun or dryness (e.g. Bonnard Resting in the Garden, 1914).
Impressionists, but also post-impressionist to avant-garde
The show also includes post-impressionists and beyond. The curators Ann Dumas (specialist in 19th century art, curator at the RA) and William H. Robinson (curator of Modern European Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art) remind us that Monet lived until the early 20th century; so the exhibition includes Modernists and Internationalists, as well as avant-garde artists like Matisse and Emil Nolde.
Exceptional loans for the Royal Academy-Cleveland exhibition
The co-curated exhibition benefited from exceptional loans, including Lady in the Garden from the Hermitage Museum, which was the highlight of my visit to St Petersburg, Russia. The painting shows the garden of Monet’s aunt who was a key supporter of his painting. And of course the exhibition finale constituted three paintings that remained in Monet’s studio under the care of his family until the 1950s, and were then acquired separately by three US museums (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Saint Louis Art Museum, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). They are extraordinarily reunited in a triptych in the last room of the exhibition.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art, runs at the Royal Academy until 20 April 2016.