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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Flower Power at the Royal Academy

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
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy in London is a real treat for anyone who loves gardens. The 120 paintings span the period from the early 1860s to the 1920s, beginning at a time when gardening was emerging as a 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 could use them as outdoor studios, planting whatever inspired them to sketch and paint.

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 © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York
We see Louis Comfort Tiffany sitting in his Long Island Garden by an easel with brush in hand, surrounded by lavish blooms (above), 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.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910
Oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm
Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Kandinsky’s sunflowers (above) became an experiment with abstraction. The Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla created a Moorish-style garden around his home in Madrid, while for Pierre Bonnard, the garden was a place to rest. (below).

Pierre Bonnard, Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin), 1914
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
Photo © Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

 Monet himself cultivated plants wherever he lived, selecting them by tone, shape and height, and setting them out 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, also a keen gardener, worked closely with Monet, and painted him (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 fascinating room at the exhibition (above) 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. For him, it was 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. 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 and this is the first time they have been reunited.
Agapanthus Triptych1916 - 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