Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gardens in Art: Monet and the Mediterranean

Villas a Bordighera, 1884
Claude Monet 1840-1926
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 3/8" (73.7 x 92.4cm)

Bequest of Katherine Dexter McCormick in memory of her husband, Stanley McCormick

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Before tackling the water garden at Giverny, I first want to look at the paintings of gardens which Monet did while travelling in the Mediterranean in the 1880s and which preceded the development of the water garden. This is a period about which I didn't know a lot about before starting this post - other than that I'd seen a few of the paintings from this period in books - and I'm still learning! I think this is also a period of travelling which may have also influenced the development of Giverny.

What I had never realised before is that Villas at Bordighera (above) is at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art! If I'd known, I'd have made a point of stopping at the museum to look at it while driving down Highway 1 last year! This particular painting captures the flowering of a century plant (agave americana) which is so-called because of the long interval which occurred between the appearance of its scented blooms.

Gardens of the Mediterranean

Monet first travelled to the Italian Riviera - on an exploratory expedition - with Renoir in December 1883. He then returned in January 1884 on his own and made Bordighera his base.

In 1884, back home in Giverney, the garden still needed to be made - while in Italy he was surrounded by gardens which were fully developed and had lush vegetation of the type found in the Mediterranean. Letters from the period to Alice certainly suggest that some of his design ideas came from gardens he saw in 1884 - in particular the way in which coupling colours of certain flowers (eg yellow and blue) could suggest shafts of light and the corresponding complementary colour of the associated shade. It supports the notion that he sought to 'paint' with flowers.
Monet found a motif in the palms and citrus trees of the garden of Francesco Moreno at Bordighera, with its backdrop of the Alps turned pink by the sun, to which he gained privileged access via Durand-Ruel (his art dealer). It was shortly after his first visit to this garden, whose owner plied him with countless 'varieties of oranges, mandarins, ripe dates, jujubes etc' that he wrote to Alice that he was in a 'terrestrial paradise'.
In the Gardens of Impressionism (Chapter 8) Clare A P Willsdon
Apparently in 1997, there was an exhibition called Monet and the Mediterranean. This started at the Kimball Art Museum in Forth Worth Texas (June 8th - September 7th) and then went to the Brooklyn Museum. It assembled 71 of Monet's paintings from three trips to the Mediterranean - Bordighera, a fishing village on the Italian Riveria in 1884, Antibes and the French Riviera in 1888 and Venice in 1908. These encompass landscapes and waterscapes as well as paintings of gardens. There appears to be no digital record online of the exhibition although it looks like it is still possible to buy the associated publication in paperback and artnet provides an account by Michael Klein of the exhibition - and highlights some of the images - here.

Monet's approach

Garden in Bordighera, Impression of Morning, 1884
Claude Monet Oil on canvas 25 3/4 x 32 in. (65.5 x 81.5 cm.)
The Hermitage, St. PetersburgNo. 3KP 522. Formerly collection Otto Krebs, Holzdorf
The bountiful wild vegetation and brilliant southern sun of the Mediterranean have a powerful effect on many travelers, and Claude Monet was no exception. ......while Monet never renounced his lifelong attachment to his home base in the north of France (Giverny), he thrived as an artist when confronting the extreme effects of light and its refractions on a variety of scenes along the Mediterranean coast and the Adriatic shores. From the olive and citrus trees in the Italian fishing village of Bordighera and the vast seas and skies of Cap d'Antibes to the astonishing series of Venetian landscapes, these works reveal Monet's fascination with the region and his obsessive goal of "painting light."
Kimball Art Museum
I notice that in Monet's Mediterranean paintings, the nature of the vegetation seems to make the marks that Monet makes with his brush even more distinctive than hitherto. Again it seems calligraphic in nature to me (or maybe 'of nature'?). Michael Klein comments on the way in which some of the treescapes remind one of the work of Van Gogh and I have to say they had prompted exactly the same reaction in me. His work is sometimes very reminiscent of the way Van Gogh created marks to describe form and structure. It strikes me that this is maybe one of reasons why I like their work.

I personally find that his paintings of gardens also remind me very much of those done by Winslow Homer in Bermuda. Maybe it's the just the motif of the palm trees? Does anybody else see the connection?

The colours are warm - apricots, oranges and pink seem to underpin and suffuse the paintings of gardens and one wonders whether he changed how he started his paintings or how he prepared each canvas.

He commented at one point that he needed to heighten his palette to one of diamonds and precious stones so that he could render the intensity of the colours he found in the Mediterranean. Some of the visual intensity of his garden paintings seems to me to come from the use of very carefully chosen colour harmonies. I'm wondering whether this was the beginning of trying to look much more carefully at the effect of light and atmosphere at different times of day. Such an approach was Monet's major preoccupation in terms of what followed with the series paintings (eg grain stacks, poplars, Rouen Cathedral) of the 1890s.

In 1884, Monet stayed about 10 weeks in Bordighera and painted about 35 works plus painted another 11 works on the French Riviera on the way home before returning in April 1884. In March 1884, Monet wrote to Alice.......
.........what a lot of gardening I shall have to do!
Links: Books
  • In the Gardens of Impressionism Clare A P Willsdon (Thames and Hudson) 2004

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