Royal Academy of Arts and Cleveland Museum of Art present

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 Exhibition co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Royal Academy of Arts

30 January — 20 April, 2016

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Metaphorically moving through time can be a moving experience, especially when accompanied by timeless art and historically contextual signposts. Such sublimely uplifting gallery gliding can be yours with Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, the vibrant, immersive anecdote to British winter currently revitalising art and, garden enthusiasts alike at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

With its paintings arranged thematically, according to the various attributes of a garden and the progressively more wide ranging notions thereof, rather than strictly when they were painted, this exhibition enables viewers to get more of an overall sense of the aims of the gardeners and designers who cultivated plants and flowers in a wide range of gardens from basic kitchen and cottage to country homes and public ones during its eras, up to and including the aftermath of WWI.

The painterly path of Claude Monet, ever a draw, is truly, in visually variegated evidence here, with 35 paintings by the French Impressionist master forming dot plants of sorts amid an oversized flowerbox of alternatingly, heady, demur, and/or explosive swathes of colour, courtesy of fellow Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists sharing his fascination with flowers. Collectively, their works shed light on the growing popularity of gardens and gardening in the British, European and American public consciousness 1860’s – 1920’s, the years the exhibition encompasses. At the opening of the exhibition, flower laden canvases by Monet and Renoir respectively captivate viewers, with famed ‘Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil’, 1873, by Renoir, imbued with his customarily lush strokes and colour pallet, piquing curiosity about the artist portrayed, as well his portrayer. Garden and painter almost seem as one in the tranquil, sun-warmed scene.

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 (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT


During the great horticultural movement of the nineteenth century, increased importing of formerly unseen varieties of plants from Asia and the Americas combined with greater affluence and leisure time for the growing middle class saw a rise in popularity of floral displays at international fairs and, societies and also, increased botanical knowledge in terms of science, and, artistic inspiration. Painterly renderings of gardens fanned out, through the lightness of Impressionism, ephemeral ideology of Symbolist Art and the experimentation of the Avant Garde, culminating, in the aftermath of WWI, as conveyances of the healing aspects of gardens as places of rest and renewal of life. Although Monet forms the cornerstone of this exhibition, as an artist with a lengthily career and fervent passion for and knowledge of gardening, among the many artists on show, his work intermittently serves to keep us on the path, albeit, one fraught with great change, not only to art and gardening, but to society itself.  At the end of our artistic journey, we find a new starting point.

Admiration for artists as gardeners grew, as I learned that Monet and friend/fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte were so interested in the versatility of their gardens that they even experimented with the creation of new hybrids themselves. Such is the intertwining of art with gardening in the context of this exhibition that the appearance of a small glass conservatory housing live plants in the centre of one of its rooms seems to be at home there. Urban Parisian painter Caillebotte, represented here in one instance by his striking Dahlias: The Garden at Petit-Gennevillier (1893)loved gardening so much that he ceased exhibiting at the age of 34 to fully engage in it, welcoming both Monet and Renoir to his Petit-Gennevillers, near Monet’s garden at Giverny.

Along the way, among a veritable cornucopia of artistic flora, at times, I spied, and savoured with my gardener’s eye, various painters’ interpretations of the same species of flowering plant, i.e. Chrysanthemum, on show side by side, as if in competing gardens. The first of three painterly specimens, ‘Chrysanthemums’ 1874-6, fraught with textural tension, by French artist James Tissot, served as a potent reminder of his remarkable way of clearly and, beautifully rendering, in contrast to one another, a wide variety of materials, from skin, hair and fabric through flower petals. ‘Chrysanthemums’ 1888 by New York artist, Dennis Miller Bunker, a gifted painter who sadly, died age 29, nonetheless, credited with ‘the transmission of Impressionism to America’, via his painting here elevates a plain brick walkway with a dazzling profusion of over-spilling, multi-hued flowers.

It was not uncommon during the great Horticultural movement of the nineteenth century for painters to travel internationally in search of better and broader botanical subjects as well as varying light. Mainly known for his uniquely evocative portraits, American artist John Singer Sargent’s floral paintings in the exhibition, especially ‘Poppies (A Study for 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose'), 1886 seemingly painted at ground level, with its wavering feel of flowers moving in a breeze, captures a sense of its subjects contrasting elements of fragility and strength, as well as their richly coloured, almost tactile presence.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this variously authored exhibition is that as you amble along its byways you find yourself reunited with previously admired painters, among many such cases here, Kandinsky, brightly represented by ‘The Garden II’ 1910, with its striking suggestions of subjects and settings, ever open to interpretation. Enjoyable too, is the way in which art loving visitors will readily collect works for future exploration by artists previously unknown to them as happily as sowers would seeds. Spanish Catalan post-Impressionist, Santiago Rusinol whose riveting paintings are so real, they almost seem Surreal, is one such artist for me. Though paint does not appear to be overly thick on his canvases, there is a carved aspect to his work, notably, in ‘Gardens of Monforte’, 1917.


Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910
Oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm
Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung


Joaquin Sorolla’s striking portrayals, several of which convey a sense of progressively more modern gardens, caught many admiring eyes. A large canvas graced with a portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany, of stained glass fame, seems to reflect a spring inspired palette of the glass itself, with its creator seated at its centre, like the king of all he surveys, presumably in his creative imagination. Here, the large blooms of the garden mirror his great success and affluence, loyal dog at his side, as in Conversation Pieces of yore.


Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911
Oil on canvas, 150 x 225.5 cm
On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York


The jardin sauvage (“wild garden”) of Pierre Bonnard in Northern France reflects growing interest in English gardens at that time specifically by top English designers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, as seen in Bonnard’s Resting in the Garden (1914) in which his garden is more of a landscape rather than a botanical showcase for individual flowers and plants.


Pierre Bonnard, Resting in the Garden, 1914. Oil on canvas. 100.5 x 249 cm. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Gift 1931 from the Friends of the National Gallery, Oslo. Bought by the collector Walther Halvorsen, 1920, from Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, inv. NG.M.01643 Photo © Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / ©


Gardens of Silence, the room fittingly reserved for among other pensive artists, the twilight-tinged artistry of Henri Le Sidaner, showcases his works’ bittersweet sense of drama, for, it is only when you pause before them in mid-admiration of his skill and ability to encapsulate dwindling light that you become almost acutely aware of the absence of human beings in his paintings and note that their contrasting contents, living and inanimate seem poised, as if waiting, for the gradual, assured darkness of night.

In ‘Avant Gardens’ German Expressionist Emil Nolde’s  thickly rendered, vividly coloured flowers - close range, individualistic  interpretations of blooms, convey his admiration for Vincent Van Gogh, one of whose searing painting, ‘Daubigny’s Garden in Auvers’, 1890, composed in the last few months of his brief but reverberating life pulsates with soulfulness in the adjacent room. Here too, we revel in Gustav Klimt’s feminine, almost breast shaped flowers, cascading down a large, dark back ground canvas, as well as a surprisingly painted scene in which Edvard Munch’s twisting tree threatens to overtake things.


Emil Nolde,Flower Garden (O), 1922.

Oil on canvas. 74 x 89.5 cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Exhibition co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Henri Matisse, Fauve painter turned experimental Avant Garde artist, stopping point, time wise for the exhibition is also on show here, via atypically, deceptively simplistic works,  ‘Palm Leaf, Tangier’ 1912 and ‘The Rose Marble Table’ 1917. Deemed by some critics to be ‘lesser’ works by the artist, yours truly merely regards them as further evidence of Matisse’s continuing interest in the breaking down of form…


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 (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015


A room housing the showing of a short film of Monet at work in his garden, its surrounding walls decorated with black and white photos of some of the artists in the exhibition enjoying their gardens offers wooden garden benches for pausing to take it all in. Photo-wise, Kandinsky, one foot on his hoe, sleeves rolled up, looks happy in his naturalistic setting as does long white bearded Matisse, strolling with his beloved companion, Alice. Books are strewn generously on wood tables for our perusal, as if to remind us these artists, creators of so much beautiful insight were as real as their love of gardens. Just in case we ever lost our way along the path, glass cases with letters Monet wrote to one of his (six) gardeners, receipts for plants purchased and Japanese woodprints by Utagawa Hiroshige which the artist collected intermittently placed along the way helped reroute us.


Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-15

Oil on canvas. 160.7 x 180.3 cm. Portland Art Museum, Oregon, inv. 59.16. Helen Thurston Ayer Fund. Photo © Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon.


As WWI raged, and Monet continued to paint at his beloved Giverny, where sounds of not so distant battles could sometimes be discerned, he stated: ‘As for me, I’m staying here all the same, and if those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work’. In the aftermath of the Great War, Monet worked on a series of paintings of Weeping Willows, three of which hang here, below his statement on the wall above, as a memorial to fallen French soldiers.

Agapanthus Triptych’ 1916 - 1919 comprised of three of Monet’s long-separated, vast Water Lily canvases, reunited as one, as intended, for the first time in Europe especially for this occasion, form a breath-taking grand finale to this extraordinary exhibition. Monet’s beloved Water Lilies, portrayed in earlier paintings, were plunged into again via enlarged versions in the final years of his life, following a three year break from painting in the aftermath of his companion Alice’s death in 1911. These luminous creations not only have the power to light up any room they grace, but potentially, if they’re open to it, the souls of their viewers as well. Having stood similarly entranced before a sea of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris two years ago only made me appreciate the presence of these uplifting canvases more. As I drank in the serene beauty of these drifting water-lilies, the distinct qualities of which I’d never experienced before, I almost felt as though I could gladly call it a day and retire right there below them, to drift into dreams with those immortal blooms glowing above. As Monet so aptly stated about his approach to natural subjects: ‘My only merit lies in having painted directly in front of nature, seeking to render my impressions before the most fleeting moments.’ Painting the Modern Garden offers a veritable kaleidoscope of painterly styles and angles from the toil of gardens through the spoils of bouquets, to gardens as havens of peace, and in all seasons, beauty, in this case without borders or boundaries in all its rapturous glory.


Royal Academy of Arts

Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

10am – 6pm daily; late night Fridays until 10pm

£17.60 full price (£16 without Gift Aid donation); concessions available, children under 16 and Friends go free




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