Impressionists and gardens at The Royal Academy

A stunning new exhibition shows how the 19th-century garden became the ideal subject for Impressionist experiment

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The garden is the man,” declared Arsène Alexandre on visiting Monet in Giverny in 1904. “When the sunlight plays upon the water, it resembles — damascened as it is with the water lilies’ great round leaves, and encrusted with the precious stones of their flowers — the masterwork of a goldsmith . . . Here is a painter who in our own time has gone as far as one person can into the subtlety, opulence and resonance of colour.”

Critics still mocked Monet, he added, but “when one owns such a beautiful garden, one can afford to laugh at such trivialities. I believe that this is the moral of Candide.”

Voltaire addressed Candide’s concl­usion — “il faut cultiver notre jardin” — to an aristocratic, ancien régime audience, but by the mid-19th century the garden was a democratic emblem: of the leisure and privacy afforded the newly affluent middle class. Combining nature and the spectacle of modern life, it became the perfect subject for Impressionist experiment, and Monet especially pushed the motif to formal extremes reaching far into the 20th century.

The Royal Academy’s Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse tells this story brilliantly. It begins with the high artifice of Monet’s silhouetted white figure against a vast screen of greenery in sunlight in the Hermitage’s iconic “Lady in the Garden” (1867), and ends with the great 12-metre violet-blue triptych “Water Lilies (Agapanthus)” (1915-26), its three parts reunited for the first time in Europe since they left Monet’s studio. The first work radically appropriates the flatness and bold colour of Japanese prints; in the second the swirls and dabs describing the giant African lilies in Monet’s water garden take on a tremulous, agitated abstract life of their own.

‘Murnau Garden II’ (1910) by Kandinsky © Merzbacher kunststiftung

The impact of both, and of Monet’s long innovations reconceptualising pictorial space, ripple across and unify a rich, diverse exhibition. With a touchstone of some 40 Monets, augmented by works spanning the Impressionist and Modernist canon — from Renoir and Sargent to Dufy and Klimt — the show dovetails art, social and horticultural history in a stunning mise-en-scène more pleasurable than any I have ever encountered at Burlington House.

Playing on illusions of inner and outer space, greenhouses and garden chairs stand alongside huge decorative panels: Bonnard’s drowsy frieze “Resting in the Garden”, painted on the eve of the first world war and fraught with a sense of unreality; Vuillard’s monumental/delicate glue-based distemper “Woman Reading on a Bench” and “Woman Seated in an Armchair” (both 1898), the sinuous figures rhyming with curling foliage and ironwork, unseen since the 1950s.

Close up, botanical journals, catalogues, letters, add intriguing insights into painterly motifs: the craze for chrysanthemums, for example, imported in the 18th century from China and now crossbred in fin-de-siècle hues of “old gold, old pink, Havana cigar, carob, otter-skin, copper cauldron”, is traced in paintings by James Tissot, Dennis Miller Bunker and, a rare private loan from Los Angeles, a dizzying close-up of the heads of the flowers by Monet.

Throughout, individual worlds of gardener-painters are deliciously evoked in focused small displays: impoverished Pissarro’s open, gentle harmonies of light in “Spring, Plum Trees in Blossom” and “The Artist’s Garden at Eragny”; wealthy Gustave Caillebotte, who experimented with raking light, tilting grounds and queasy perspectives as in “The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres” and “Dahlias: The Garden at Petit-Gennevilliers”; Henri Le Sidaner’s hazy, shut-in depictions of his Gerberoy retreat “The Table in the White Garden”, “The Steps” and the late, foreboding “The Rose Pavilion” (1936-38), where blossoms swamp the house.

Although there are celebrity gardens painted with panache — Joaquín Sorolla’s “Louis Comfort Tiffany”, from 1911, posed against yellow and white flowers in his garden giving on to the deep blue of Long Island Sound, is a star loan — gradually figures disappear, and the show’s passage from Impressionist to Symbolist to Modernist garden is towards withdrawal and introspection.

Monet, who staked his early career on painting figures in nature, eliminated them entirely by 1895: the Bührle Collection’s “Monet’s Garden at Giverny” is a connoisseur’s picture where his stepdaughter Suzanne, already ill, posed a final time; she is reduced to a schematic shape among irises, peonies, roses. Here the composition points straight to the 1900s “Murnau Garden” series by Kandinsky, who acknowledged Monet as the catalyst for his understanding of colour.

By 1900, Monet, almost entirely absorbed in his water garden, was rising at four to observe barely perceptible chromatic nuances glimpsed at first light, the heat rising from the misty pond, changing reflections of clouds. He was now rich enough to spend a fortune on exotic plants — to the suspicion of Giverny’s villagers, who believed new breeds were poisoning local streams — and on seven gardeners, one working by boat to dust the water lilies daily. “These landscapes of water and reflected light have become an obsession. It is beyond my old man’s strength, nevertheless, I want to express what I feel,” Monet said.

‘Claude Monet, Giverny’ (1905) © Hulton Archive

Of all the Impressionists, he alone followed the implications of painting immediate, transitory sensation to its inevitable conclusion: modern art’s subjectivity, relativity, fragmentation and finally abstraction. All that is held within the “Nymphéas” and “Weeping Willows” canvases — a dozen outstanding examples are here — painted now from memory not nature, in tenebrous harmonies, or thickly encrusted with burning colours, or dissolving in blurry, uncertain outlines. He worked on these from 1914 to 1926, after the death of his wife and son, under threat of blindness, and in mourning for France’s wartime losses.

Electrifyingly, these are shown in the company of vibrant “avant-gardeners” responding in their own way to war: Matisse’s harsh, distorted “The Rose Marble Table” (1917) from MoMA, Klee’s “Picture of a Garden in Dark Colours” (1923), Emil Nolde’s blood-red “Flower Gardens” (1922). The association demonstrates Monet’s resolute modernity in an art about interiority and the ravages of time as revolutionary as Proust’s: À la recherche du temps perdu was published in this period, 1913-27.

Yet Monet remained in thrall to nature too, and melancholy coexists here with the gardener’s belief in eternal renewal. His best friend the statesman Georges Clemenceau, visiting the artist in his final weeks, arrived to find him ecstatic about a box of lily bulbs from Japan that “would produce beautifully coloured blossoms. ‘You will see all this in the spring’, he told me. ‘I will no longer be here’. But one could tell that he did not really believe it, and he was really hoping to be there in May to rejoice at the spectacle.”

To April 20, royalacademy.org.uk

Sponsored by BNY Mellon

Photographs: The Hispanic Society of America, New York; Merzbacher kunststiftung; Portland Art Museum; Hulton Archive

Slideshow photographs: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; The Hispanic Society of America, New York; Portland Art Museum, Portland; Merzbacher Kunststiftung, Küsnacht; The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo/ADAGP, Paris & DACS, London; MOMA, New York/Scala, Florence/Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2015; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Private collection, LA; Getty

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