The Royal Academy’s impressions of the gardener artists

PUBLISHED: 10:01 07 February 2016

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867. Picture: The State Hermitage Museum/Vladimir Terebenin

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867. Picture: The State Hermitage Museum/Vladimir Terebenin

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The RA’s latest exhibition shows that many 19th century artists were also keen horticulturalists whose work was influenced by the introduction of vibrant hybrid flowers.

Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Picture: Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New YorkJoaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Picture: Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

There are plenty of antidotes to the dullness of this time of the gardening year … snowdrops, or the scent of wintersweet, or just being out in the garden for a while. But the Royal Academy of Arts is offering a different sort of winter therapy, in the form of its grand new exhibition “Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse”. This show should lift the spirits of almost anyone, but for those who love flowers and gardens, it is a special treat.

It is not that being in the galleries is like being in a garden … no other art form can recreate the whole of that multi-sensory experience, with its added variables of light and weather. But being surrounded by so much work by artists who loved plants and gardens is moving in itself. A revelation of the show is how many late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries painters were also engaged in gardening, either in a hands-on manner or through the work of others, not least, wives. Monet is the star, but Pisarro, Caillebotte, Renoir, Matisse, Bonnard, Klee, Kandinsky, Nolde, and many more, are shown to have been gardeners.

How did these artists manage it, painting professionally yet finding time to garden? The answer is implicit in that very few works in the show are by women – women appear often as subjects, at leisure, gathering flowers or crops, snipping roses, looking after children – but the traditional division of responsibilities within the household, and the cheapness of labour, must account for the fact that these men could pursue two such time-consuming activities. In that sense, perhaps their gardens were not so very modern.

In what way, then were the gardens “modern”? Since we have been post modern for a while, “modern” has become somewhat stuck in its twentieth century heyday of Modernism. But these gardens are pre-Modernist. The writing supporting the exhibition (indeed in it, there are fascinating displays of documentary evidence, books, catalogues, invoices etc) suggests several forms of modernity. One is the aspiration among the growing middle classes for a share in the gardening delights formerly restricted to the gentry. Another is as a response to the spread of cities and industrialisation, a wish for green and pleasant surroundings. There is also a thread of internationalism. Although France dominates, there are artists from Spain, America, Scandinavia, Germany, England.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15. Picture: Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon/Paul FosterClaude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15. Picture: Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon/Paul Foster

However, perhaps the most exciting modern thing for viewers is the marvellous, ebullient, colourful reaction of these painters to the modernity of newly introduced or hybridized flowers, notably dahlias, water lilies, chrysanthemums, roses, pelargoniums, nasturtiums. Elements of garden design, formality, wildness, etc., are noticeable, but really it is the gorgeous floriferousness that leaps out, for instance, from Armand Guillamin’s The Nasturtium Path or Emil Nolde’s Flower Garden. Not that the painted colour was a match for the real flowers. Here is Matisse lamenting the shortcomings of paint … “Sometimes I put flowers right alongside my paintings and how poor and dull all my colours seem”.

Another aspect of modernity is photography. These people are not from the distant past, we have photos of them, of the gardens, even clips of film. One gallery is lined with photos, but dominated by a brief film of the hero of painting-cum-gardening. Monet, in snow-white jacket, fag in mouth, looks at a weeping willow, turns to the palette in the crook of his arm (can that jacket stay snow-white?), looks again, then brushes paint on to the canvas. It is over in a moment, but so touching… as is the rare opportunity to see his water lily triptych reunited for the first time since it was broken up in the 1950s.

One last thing – the show is big. Be prepared to spend a long time or, preferably, go more than once. This could be the moment to become a Friend of the Royal Academy.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse until April 20 at The Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly,

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