Painting the Modern Garden: from Monet to Matisse

London, Royal Academy of Arts

Written by:
Frances Wilson
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In the great panoramic panels of water lilies which Claude Monet painted in the final years of his life, one has the sense of an artist who was so familiar with his subject matter that the creation of these arresting and atmospheric paintings became intuitive. Liberated from the need to depict actual plants and flowers, these great paintings are perhaps the most truly “impressionistic” and expressive of all the Monets displayed in the Royal Academy’s big spring show “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”. Dabs of paint are dragged across the surface of the canvas, there’s a bright blob of colour here and there, while layers of opaque colour combine to suggest light and air. As you look closer, the colours vibrate and shift, the light changes and new details are revealed. The combined effect is breathtakingly beautiful, absorbing and endlessly fascinating: these are pictures which reveal their depth through concentrated and repeated viewings.


Monet is undoubtedly the star of the show in this major exhibition exploring the role of the garden in the paintings of Monet and his contemporaries, but amongst some 130 works displayed there are also rarely-seen masterpieces by Pierre Bonnard, Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky and Gustav Klimt. There are also works by lesser-known European painters working within movements such as Expressionism, Intimism and Symbolism. All demonstrate how avant-garde artists across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used gardens to experiment with colour, perspective, metaphor and emotion.


Many of the artists featured were keen gardeners themselves, creating inspirational plantings and imaginative landscapes to inform their art. Many were inspired by the great horticultural movement of the nineteenth century, a time when gardening was becoming the popular pursuit and pastime as we enjoy it today. Monet is the artist-gardener par excellence, using his painterly eye to create his garden at Giverny very deliberately to provide motifs to paint, from the delicately arched Japanese wooden bridge across the water lily pond (inspired by the Japanese garden prints of Hiroshige) to densely-planted beds, designed to flower throughout the year in blocks of colour, like an artist’s paint box. For the last twenty years of his life, the water garden was Monet’s obsession and his only subject. The result is his most famous and best-loved paintings, many of which are on display in this exhibition.


Artists from the north and south of Europe are represented too, from the warm-hued canvases of Spanish artists Joaquín Sorolla and Santiago Rusinol to the cooler palette of Austrian Max Liebermann or Swedish painter Karl Nordstrom; while John Singer Sargent’s paintings, made in the English Cotswolds, burst with colour and blowsy blooms. Artists were creating their own private outdoor havens in which to paint, and gardens offered ideal sites for communal painting en plain air. Later in the exhibition, we find artists such as Paul Klee and Gustav Klimt experimenting with abstraction, where plants and flowers are transformed into jewelled mosaics and radiant splashes of colour.


Gardens are also places of retreat and reverie and were used by some artists as a means of depicting imagined realities or a utopian ideal. During the First World War, gardens became places of sanctuary and healing, and many artists, including Monet, used the garden for creative inspiration and comfort. There are wild, untamed gardens, formal gardens, imagined gardens and silent gardens, devoid of human presence. There are works by Renoir and Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard and Van Gogh. In display cases inspired by greenhouses and conservatories, there are horticultural manuals, botanical prints and magazines, and towards the end of the exhibition – before the full effect of Monet’s “grandes decorations” (triple panel) is revealed – there are photographs of artists in their gardens.


The exhibition is wonderfully uplifting – go on a dull day and you’ll emerge warmed by sunlight and drenched in colour – and will appeal to both art lovers and gardeners alike, who will leave with a greater understanding of how gardens have become a universal source of inspirations for artists of the modern age, an inspiration which has continued in the gardens, for example, of British artists Derek Jarman and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

The exhibition is co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the London exhibition is sponsored by BNY Mellon, Partner of the Royal Academy of Arts.

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