/Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse ☆☆☆☆☆

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse ☆☆☆☆☆

What are the first few words that come to mind when you think of the French artist, Claude Monet? Japanese bridges or water lilies perhaps? You wouldn’t be far off as his exquisite impressionist pieces capture the tranquil colours and dreaminess of the garden world, simply looking at his work – the ‘Grandes Décorations’ (1914-26) – teleports you to his immersive garden in Giverny, Normandy.

This Saturday sees the opening of Painting the The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy, and for horticultural lovers, garden hobbyists or a fan of the great artists of the late 18th century and early 19th century, they’re in for a treat. It’s curators, Ann Dumas and Dr. William H. Robinson, have programmed something rather original, that doesn’t entirely focus on the pinnacle works of Monet, even though he is the touchstone of the exhibition. 

Having transferred from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Painting the Modern Garden presents Monet’s love for the art of gardening and painting through his works up against other international artists who sought inspiration from the back of their homes. For such artists like Pierre Bonnard, Emil Nolde, John Singer Sargent, Gustav Klimt,  Max Libermann, Wassily Kandinsky and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the garden was an outdoor studio. 

Though, the exhibition also touches on the personal and poignant influence the First World War had on Monet – his Normandy garden was only 50 kilometres away from the gunfire and battlefields. ‘Yesterday I resumed work,’ he wrote on 1 December 1914. ‘It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.’  While many fled Giverny, Monet stayed behind, ‘… if those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all of my life’s work.’ Water Lilies with Weeping Willows (1916-19) is the closest we see of Monet’s sense of grief and loss during the war, which is on display at the exhibition.  

By the mid 1800s, the practice of gardening was deemed a privilege for the bourgeois and middle classes. Its popularity grew out of people’s curiosity of such leisurely activity as well as its science for botanists and horticulturalists, including Monet. For artists, painting the garden was advantageous to their skill set: by exploring and challenging their imagination, whilst allowing them to experiment with brighter and darker hues.

Divided into eight separate rooms, 120 pieces of work are delicately presented for viewers to observe how these great artists encapsulated flora, dahlias, blossoms, roses, trees, hyacinths and other blooming flowers. Both Dumas and Dr. Robinson, have defined these rooms with interesting names such as Impressionist, Avant-Gardens, Reverie, Silence, Monet’s Earlier Years at Giverny and Monet’s Later Years at Giverny. Besides the last room, which is solely focused on Monet in Giverny, which he and his family moved to in 1883, I found that these different names were subtle and shed very little distinction between one another. In essence, I discovered that when I left one room without having seen all of the paintings, I didn’t feel as if I had broken a thematic flow; after all these beautiful paintings had one thing in common – beautiful gardens.

Agapanthus Triptych, 1916-19

Monet spend the first 15 years in Giverny not painting. Instead he devoted his time and fortune on watering, weeding, digging and planting his garden. He took his gardening seriously; he kept many books of gardening and horticulture in his library, and designed his garden based on his experience as an artist. He positioned his bed of flowers in separate colours like dividing his paint brushes and boxes. As an instruction to his chief gardener, Félix Brueil in early 1900 he wrote, ‘From the 15th to the 25th, lay the dahlias down to root, plant out those with shoots before I get back… In March show the grass seeds, plant out the little nasturtiums, keep a close eye on the gloxinia, orchids etc., in the greenhouse…’

He was first inspired to recreate water lillies in his garden when he attended the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where 48 of his paintings were exhibited in Paris under the title Water Lillies: Series of Water Landscapes in 1909. Critics adored his work for their authenticity that one observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’ Some of these works are also displayed at the exhibition.

Yet Monet stopped painting for three years following the death of his wife in 1911, and was diagnosed with cataracts. When his vision improved in 1914 he resumed painting his water garden and water lilies from memories. During these years he re-created mesmerising works that underpin his sombre and tender feelings in his personal life. This included the Agapanthus triptych, which is brought together and displayed for the first time in Europe. The are currently owned separately by three American museums – the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, who kindly donated it to be seen at the Royal Academy in a stand-alone room. It’s a peaceful and moving display of Monet’s passion for his self-made garden and the intense emotions he felt of the war going on in Europe. 

I would like to thank the Royal Academy of Arts for allowing me to take photos on the Press Preview event. The exhibition opens to the public from 30th January – Wednesday 20th April. For more information and to purchase tickets please go to: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/painting-modern-garden-monet-matisse

For those unable to attend the Royal Academy of arts, you can see this exhibition on screen nationwide from 12th April 2016 through Seventh Art Productions and Arts Alliance Ltd. For more information on the screening, please go to www.exhibitiononscreen.com.


Don’t waste a moment. #ModernGarden embraces incredible artists who loved the art of gardening @royalacademy Go see! pic.twitter.com/EgwcvqXPpl

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 26, 2016

Monet is in the Royal Academy! I long for Summer. #ModernGarden #presspreview @royalacademy pic.twitter.com/30h9FxJ6zc

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 26, 2016