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Gardening and painting are longstanding allies. In London this spring, the Royal Academy’s massive exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden, delighted huge crowds and concluded with Monet’s famous canvases of water lilies. Impressionist painters have a very special relationship with gardens, but the French master-artists are not the whole story. Until September 11, the New York Botanical Garden is staging Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, another of its trademark shows of art, poetry and specially commissioned plantings that evoke a place and period.
Up in the Bronx, the garden is in fine late-summer form for its 125th anniversary. Its Impressionist show is fascinating, especially for those of us who encountered American artists such as Childe Hassam in the Royal Academy and wondered who on earth they were. The NYBG’s concise catalogue places them in a lively social and cultural context. Its contributors include several of the scholars who have pieced together this subject in the past 20 years. If you cannot get up to the Bronx or to the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, where the show’s paintings will move from February 17 to May 14 next year, the catalogue is an excellent resource for garden lovers.
The years from the 1880s to the 1920s are its main span. Studies of English garden history in this period focus on Gertrude Jekyll and the birth of colour planning, but the great lady was first inspired by the Barbizon school of French painters and earlier French theorists, not by Impressionists such as Monet. She seems unaware that US gardeners on the East Coast also included notable women. Like herself, they favoured cottage garden flowers, in their case flowers from the colonial era. Whereas her Surrey garden is now best known through paintings by minor English artists in an Edwardian sentimental style, their American gardens are preserved in works by much better painters, people who had had direct contact with French Impressionism. Jekyll never visited Monet, but by the 1880s US painters had settled at Giverny almost on his doorstep. One family, the MacMonnies, made a flowery garden which a visitor described as the most beautiful in the entire place. The best-known painting of it does not support the claim. Monet himself avoided the American colony.
When they returned home, painters among them applied the new style to American gardens that they visited. Like Monet, some were gardeners too, owning houses with names like Phloxdale, filled with border phloxes for the holiday season. Others went off during summer holidays and lodged in gardens that could be painted in an Impressionist style. “Painting holidays” are not at all a new invention. The NYBG exhibition shows the garden of one Florence Griswold in Old Lyme, Connecticut, which became a renowned colony for artists. It also displays early views of the Hamptons before the rich and famous took over. Meanwhile, poetry boards around the garden evoke effusive writing about flowers in the same period, long before my gardening columns existed. Bedding schemes in and around the main conservatory show favourite flowers of the era, updated by clever selection of modern varieties.
The three prongs of the show meet in its prize exhibit, Celia Thaxter, who died in 1894. She was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper but grew up to be a poet, gardener and garden writer on Appledore island off New Hampshire. In this rocky landscape she grew hundreds of poppies from seed and somehow kept hollyhocks upright within sight of the open sea. She wrote florid poems, forgotten in Britain but featured aptly on the NYBG’s poetry boards where they keep company with others by Robert Frost. Thaxter was also a journalist and a prose author on flowers whose flowery style precedes Norah Lindsay in England or the effusive Reginald Farrer, king of alpine plants.
She did not paint, but her links with American Impressionism became extremely close because she and her small garden fascinated the French-trained artist Childe Hassam. During his many visits he painted flowers that she would pick and arrange. He had been christened “Frederick”, but she persuaded him to change to “Childe”, presumably for its Byronic resonance. By illustrating her garden book, An Island Garden, Hassam brought images of Appledore to fascinated readers who loved the idea of a lady of nature living in a cottage on an island’s cliffs. Like other canny hostesses when short of money, Thatcher sold Hassam’s paintings to visitors by showing them on her cottage’s walls.
His well-known portrait of her is carefully stylised. It is based on a black-and-white photo which makes it clearer that her protruding backside is due only to her dress and its underpinning. She is picking a flower, as often, but is not attired for practical gardening. Two years before her death, she is painted in a white dress with streaks of lavender blue, repeated on the fence behind her. The paint is piled up in impressionistic brush strokes but a silvery crescent-shaped comb is shown in her hair. It was her hallmark, echoing her description of the seeds of marigolds as “crescent-shaped” and waiting to grow into “mimic suns”. Hassam duly adopted her emblem. He signed his later pictures with a crescent-shaped device.
“We went off to Appledore to see her garden”, Todd Forrest, head of NYBG’s Living Collections, told me, “but there is none of her planting left.” The show’s flowery display had to work from books and the painted record and to stage a composite, evocative effect. The genius of past shows, Francisca Coelho, has risen to the challenge, tempering colours and plants and changing them weekly to outwit the hottest weather under glass. In her mind’s eye a first grouping of blue delphiniums and azure-blue, balloon-flowered Platycodons could suggest the sea, leading on to groups of bright yellow from sunflowers and rudbeckias and to cool white groups of Zinnia Polar Bear, modern improvements of families which Thaxter’s writings romanticise.
When the show opened, the central walkway was packed with multicoloured poppies, Thaxter’s signature plant. Coelho had grown 10,000, a spectacular sight, followed by gladioli and lilies, other Thaxter favourites, which will extend the show into its final weeks. They lead up to the specially commissioned façade of a wooden-boarded cottage, complete with a porch and a view on to flowery salvias and a new small buddleia called Wisteria Lane. Thaxter and Hassam would have loved it.
In long boxes outdoors, Coelho has opted for brilliantly chosen annuals which we can all learn to use in our own gardens. White-flowered Catharanthus has yet to catch on in Britain, and until I saw her modern types of Celosia, or cockscomb, in shades of burgundy red, I would have left this family to glower by the seaside on Appledore. She treats watering and colour planning as fine arts, so I had to ask her if she would have employed Thaxter as an intern. “No,” the modern maestro answered, “but I could have given her a job — to pose.”
Photographs: Robert Benson Photography; Portsmouth Athenaeum