Painting the Modern Garden

As I have been back on treatment for the last two weeks, I’m afraid I have no pictures of my own to post this week. Instead, I thought I would share my recent encounter with some infinitely superior paintings at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’. As it will seem entirely incongruous to promote my own work after discussing the likes of Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir, before I embark, I must just mention that my petite giclée cards – floral or otherwise – are now all back in stock and £1 from every pack of Lyme cards will now go to a Lyme charity called Vis-a-Vis Symposiums. 

One of many potential garden designs!

The relationship between gardens and art is close to my heart. Gardens have always been, for me, places of refuge, rejuvenation and creativity. Indeed, had I not found the gardens at my college to be such a beguiling and conducive atmosphere in which to revise for my exams, I would probably never have been bitten by a tick and succumbed to Lyme Disease. One would think that would be enough to put a person off gardens, but bar my new-found wariness of long grass, the garden is still a haven for me. All this may seem even more perverse considering that over the last two years I have not had a garden, but have been living in a flat. We have done what we can with a small balcony, but now at long last we may be only a few weeks away from having a garden for the very first time and have been furious sketching out designs, ideas and lists of potential plants.

All this made the timing of my visit to the RA very pertinent, and I felt part of the exhibition’s narrative which focuses on ‘modern gardening’ as the more democratic phenomenon which emerged in the nineteenth century as gardens became far more accessible to the middle classes, and even those without a garden through the flourishing of parks and public gardens. Monet, of course, was at the heart of the exhibition and it was a joy to discover the devotion he had towards gardening as an end, and art, in itself. Being familiar, as we all are, with his paintings of waterlilies, and aware of his garden at Giverny, I had envisaged his garden as as an elaborate, living prop which he composed largely with a view to his canvases. However, my impression from this exhibition was that Monet viewed his garden as a work of art in its own right, a work of art that went beyond, between and around his paintings. This seems an absurd statement when the exhibition showcases such a volume of Monet’s work, but on closer inspection it struck me that Monet seemed to pick the subjects from his garden carefully. Some views and subjects reoccur – such as the monumental series on waterlilies – but other views and plants are only painted once or twice, or perhaps there were corners of his garden he never painted. It made me wonder whether there were parts of his garden which Monet knew his paint brush could add a voice to, and parts which he felt were complete works of art in themselves. There are times when I find a particular flower or subject which I consider painting, and conclude that actually I could add nothing to its own artistry, that I would simply be borrowing the art from nature rather than adding anything of my own.

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) 1907 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Seeing so many of Monet’s waterlily paintings together impressed upon me just how much he had be able to ‘give’ to that subject – so many flavours of colour, so many textures and rhythms of brush strokes, contrasting vertical reflections and horizontal lily pads, so much variety in mood and movement. However, I was also struck by how partial these paintings are. As such large canvases with fathomless depths of tones and undertones, they can feel like worlds in themselves. But actually, they must have been a small fragment of the vista Monet looked on from his easel, across his garden at Giverny. To me these pictures came alive in a new way when I tried to imagine the surrounding garden that the reflections and colours implied – was it twilight? were there trees above? was it blazing sun making the water such a deep blue? It also made me realise that, especially in the later paintings, his garden had become more of an inspirational springboard than a subject to be rendered on canvas. Although the extraordinary Agapanthus Triptych is quite the most breathtaking part of the exhibition, I feel that Monet reached his mystical height on this theme with the final painting of the exhibition: ‘Water Lilies’ (after 1918, National Gallery London). The subtle iridescence of this painting makes one feel as though Monet has lept from his springboard of inspiration as high as he can go, and has broken through the pond’s surface into a new, golden, shimmering realm. In many cultures, gardens are liminal spaces – places of intersection between the human and divine. This painting seems to capture that mythical, mystical aspect. (Reproductions do it not the smallest semblance of justice, which is why I’ve included none here but here is a link to the National Gallery, which is its usual home:


‘Chrysanthemums’ – Tissot 1874-6. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

However, the exhibition went far beyond Monet and such a cerebral view of the garden, looking at more human factors such as fashions, plant collecting, engineering and hybridisation. People also feature in many of the paintings, reminding the viewer that though we might like to think of a garden as a little piece of nature, they are very human constructs and designed to be inhabited. Although the exhibition opens with two still lifes – one by Monet and one by Renoir – we are quickly reminded of the crucial difference between the genre of still life (the ubiquitous vase of flowers) and the subject of a garden: the difference between object and environment. To an extent, the garden always seems to overcome its viewer and I found some of the most immersive paintings to be those that acknowledged the garden, not as a view but as an element that one is encompassed by, such as the wonderful painting by James Tissot of a woman surrounded by ‘Chrysanthemums’ or Sorolla’s atmospheric painting of ‘Louis Comfort Tiffany’, embroiled in Hydrangeas. I found this challenging, as I usually take the easier option of focusing on a small detail – a single flower – rather than confronting the entirety of this complex, varied and interwoven environment.

‘Glorieta VII, Aranjuez’ – Rusinol 1919 La Coruna

I learnt a huge amount from this exhibition, not least about several artists who I had never even heard of, but whose paintings I would longing wait to look at from across the crowded rooms. P S Kroyer, Singer Sargent, Tissot and and Rusinol were all such revelations. It is a testament both to gardening and to this exhibition that so many diverse artists, styles and traditions can be brought together by the humble phenomenon of the modern garden. It is well worth a visit – and a long one if you can manage it! We only had an hour after a long day of medical tests and it was too short by more than half! Like any horticultural beauty, this is a transient phenomenon, and you have just over a month to catch it….  The Modern Garden at the RA.

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