Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867
Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo © The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin
This is the perfect exhibition for a grey winter's day, bursting with colour and full of the promise of summer. With Claude Monet as the starting point, the Royal Academy in London has brought together 120 paintings that span the period from the early 1860s to the 1920s - a time of great change in both society and the arts. About a third are Monet's, with the rest by contemporaries such as Pierre Bonnard, Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910
Oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm
Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung
 At this time, gardening was emerging as a widespread popular pastime. The middle classes were moving out of the cities and creating their own private Edens in the suburbs. Gardens became an extra room where they could relax and enjoy themselves, while artists were able to use them as outdoor studios, planting whatever inspired them to sketch and paint.  We see Camille Pissarro’s working garden, complete with gardeners, in Kitchen Gardens at L’Hermitage, Pontoise, and Gustave Caillebotte’s showy ‘cactus’ dahlias in front of his greenhouse. Kandinsky's sunflowers (above) became an experiment with abstraction while Matisse's eye was caught by a rose-coloured marble garden table, surrounded by ivy (below). 

Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917
Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo © 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015
The Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla created a Moorish-style garden around his home in Madrid, while Max Liebermann designed a garden with a geometric layout that gave the impression of rooms extending from the house, in keeping with contemporary ideas in German garden design.
Monet cultivated plants wherever he lived, selecting plants and trees by tone, shape and height, arranging them so there was colour throughout the year; one painting shows red peonies growing under a protective straw awning.  “I perhaps owe it to flowers that I became a painter”, he recalled.

Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 59.7 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell, 1957.614
Photo © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
 Renoir worked closely with Monet, and painted him early on in his career (above) as he captured on canvas a profusion of vast dahlia plants in a corner of his garden at Argenteuil – a work that is also on display.  Monet later created another garden at Vétheuil, where he portrayed his young sons surrounded by sunflowers. But his greatest creation was at Giverny, where he first rented, then bought, a property, adding to the grounds over the years.  One room at the exhibition (below) is devoted to his botanical books, original letters and plans that tell the story of his application for planning permission to create his famous water garden in the face of opposition from local farmers and villagers.
Devising and establishing the garden took years. He kept up with the latest horticultural research and techniques by subscribing to specialist magazines, and after 1890 employed a team of six full-time gardeners to help him realise his vision. He saw it as his “most beautiful work of art". In 1914 he built a bigger studio and began his huge water lily paintings. From then until his death in 1926, he continued painting the pond, the water, the sky and the Japanese bridge. Even the outbreak of the First World War didn’t stop him, despite being able to hear the sound of cannons and battle from his garden. “Yesterday I resumed’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times,” he wrote.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm
Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16
Photo © Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
A stunning selection of these water lily paintings closes the show. The most famous must remain in the Orangerie in Paris, where they encircle two oval rooms, surrounding visitors with their beauty. But the final room of the exhibition has a breathtaking surprise – an earlier version, the Agapanthus triptych (below). These three huge paintings, each about 13 feet long, and shimmering with colour, were created to be shown together. They stayed in his studio until after his death, before being sold to three separate museums. This is the first time they have been reunited.
Agapanthus Triptych 1916 - 1919. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Saint Louis Art Museum, St Louis.)
A film examining the role of the garden in art history, from Impressionism to the Avant-Garde, will be in cinemas from April 12, part of the Exhibition on Screen series. Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse features behind-the-scenes visits to some of the gardens that inspired the artists, and interviews with artists, gardening experts and critics.
Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy, London until April 20 2016. Admission £17.60 with Gift Aid (concessions available). For more information Ph 020 7300 8090 or

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