Friday, August 10, 2007

Gardens in Art: In the gardens of Impressionism

Cover image: Roses, garden in Skagen
by Peder Severin Kroyer 1883

"In the Gardens of Impressionism" is a book which looks at the Impressionists painted gardens with the wider context of the 'great horticultural movement' associated with France in the nineteenth century.
It's the first ever in-depth study of the Impressionists' affection for gardens, whether as motifs in their right or as a stage for various human activities and events.
Clare A P Willsdon, Preface to "In the gardens of Impressionism
The book is lavishly illustrated with 261 illustrations in total of which 135 are in colour. Some of the mono illustrations are of lost paintings such as Monet's painting of Manet painting in Monet's garden. (Yup - I had to read it twice too!).

The book's author is Dr Clare A P Willsdon, a senior lecturer in the History of Art at Glasgow University and is making a study of the role of gardens in nineteenth and twentieth century art. The book was published by Thames and Hudson in 2004. The book tends towards the very academic and has a very impressive section for references but it is also very readable and is absolutely packed with information about the Impressionist movement and the lives they led within the times they lived in. Those who enjoy Impressionist paintings will undoubtedly both enjoy and learn from this book.
These artists as a rule find their subjects close to home, within an easy walk or in their own garden
Stéphane Mallarmé
I found the book fascinating for two reasons. First - because it includes a lot of paintings which are not seen very much - I particularly enjoyed seeing the garden paintings executed by Caillebotte - who was a highly skilled horticulturalist like Monet - and Bazille who died early.

Second, I found the categories used by the author to be a very interesting way of thinking about how one can get a perspective on paintings of gardens. The categories she used are listed below along with my synopsis of what they focus on.
  • Flowers of tradition - flowers have always had a symbolic importance in art. This section identifies the background to the emergence of garden painting - of flowers growing in gardens rather than just being depicted as botanical specimens or as part of a still life painting.
  • horticulture and pleinarisme - the chapter considers how popular horticulture developed in France partly as a result of the intrduction of new flowers from other areas of the world. Design themes were changing, from the artifice of the formal to the jardin natural. A number of the paintings include 'plant humaines' - people in the garden. Plein air painting developed with the Impressionists.
  • private gardens before 1870 - painting private people in their own gardens was a novelty at first. Artists started painting women - both clothed and unclothed - in a garden setting rather than in interiors. The same private gardens keep cropping up in the paintings of the Impressionists. The paintings often record the private relationships of artists and their families and their friends.
  • painting the Paris 'bouquet' - public parks are 'close to home'. Paris was being "greened" under the third republic and also had the international exhibition in 1867 which had a big impact on its open spaces. It's interesting to note how many of the paintings of the large urban gardens (such as the Tuileries) were done from a vantage point where the artist could look down on a painting. Many of the painters paint the people to be found in the public gardens - such as nursemaids and their charges. Some used the public gardens to help them begin a series approach to painting - in particular the impact of different weather effects
  • sunshine, shadows and sanctuary - the gardens of the artists are used for intimate family portraits. Activities are usually leisure and recreation oriented or involve light domestic duties. They frequently feature family events or children playing. There are paintings of artists painting artists painting gardens. Many people seem to be absorbed in their activities. Gardens were also places where people could ignore some of the things going on in the outside world. Many of the artists gave up the theme of the family garden as they got older.
  • the social garden - social gardens are places where there tend to be throngs of people. Renoir painted in Montmartre and to some extent sought to bring gardens indoors. Manet on the other hand enjoyed painting indoor gardens - such as te conservatory
  • the working garden - kitchen gardens are gardens that have to work hard. What is intriguing is how the structure of both gardens and activities within them lend themselves to some interesting compositions.
  • Monet in the south and at Giverny - Monet was a gardener as well as an artist and would travel to see gardens and paint them. His garden at Giverny also became one of the great motifs of the Impressionist movement. Monet also remarked towards the end of his life that he saw his garden as his "most beuatiful work of art".
  • the fruits of the garden of Impressionism - In this section, the impact of Impressionism on the painting of gardens in other countries is reviewed
Gardens were also a favoured subject of the colony of Amercian Impressionists who created a colony around Monet at Giverny.

So what have I learned from my initial overview of this book which might be applied to the gardens in art project? Essentially the main lesson seems to be that the nature of the painting will reflect the interests of the artist and the times they live in.
  • Like Monet, those who enjoy gardens as subjects will always travel to find a good garden to paint.
  • Like Renoir, Morisot and Cassat, those who enjoy social intercourse or figure painting will often contruct paintings of gardens to include those who are often part of the artist's life or are often seen in that particular garden
  • Those who enjoy detail and small scale works may well focus on studies of flowers
  • For women painters gardens are safe and socially acceptable places to paint from real life - both then and now
  • Those who enjoy structure, 'views' and colour relationships (that'll be me!) may develop paintings which tend to exclude figures or only include them in a very anonymous way.
Subjects for painting in gardens can often be the same sort of things we sometimes now take photographs of. How much better if we were to record our lives with paintings instead?

(Note: I'll try and update this post with some more images - right now I'm on my way to a garden!)

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