The Changing Nature of Gardens in Art

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Flower Garden (O), 1922Emil Nolde © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

“I owe it to flowers that I became a painter,” Monet once famously said. The Royal Academy's new show explores Impressionists' obsession with the great outdoors

Gardens represent a tranquil oasis of personal space – a little spot of earth within which one can cultivate their own paradise. Somewhere down the line, after the initial domestication of crops, somebody presumably found such enjoyment from gazing upon this new manmade landscape that they decided to cultivate not for food, but for pleasure. From this, the garden was born – and it seems only fitting that people who find such beauty in nature would share that vision with artists.

Flora and Fauna featured heavily in Classical art, before dying out for the pragmatic imagery of the dark ages and medieval periods. It flourished again during the Renaissance, but only as a backdrop to human allegories. Constable and Turner famously freed the landscape from figures, greatly influencing the Impressionists, who headed out to their private greeneries in search of new inspiration. 

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, a joint effort between the Royal Academy and The Cleveland Museum of Art has been five years in the making – it focuses on the greatest of all garden painters, Claude Monet, while setting him in the context of his European contemporaries and their adoration for painting their own tranquil gardens. William Robinson, the exhibition's curator, sat down to discuss the show with AnOther.


The mid-19th century was the era of the blossoming bourgeois affluent middle classes throughout Europe, and as such presented the first opportunity for the average person to own their own outdoor space, in turn creating an impulse for people to discover the joys of gardening. “Monet himself was an avid horticulturalist from the beginning – he would redesign the gardens of his rented properties in Paris, irrigating them with water from the Seine and filling them with Delftware pots he brought back from Holland," Robinson explains. "By the end of his life he had a team of six gardeners working around the clock, pouring all his money into creating his perfect garden, but he always remained the architect of his own landscape.”

The show begins with two paintings by Renoir and Monet, in their pre-Impressionist phases. The two works were completed while the friends sat in a garden shed, and passionately illustrating their love for nature: cut flowers in muddy boxes are delicately painted in caring brushstrokes that hint at how their techniques would later unfold. “These intense studies are full of vitality and natural light, while paying homage to the traditions of still life painting. This is just before the artists moved outdoors,” Robinson continues. This was the very beginning of the gardens as a personal laboratory – the artists were experimenting with composition and colour in nature, as well as discovering new plants imported from the far east and creating their own hybrid variations. A further room displays the collections of books owned by the artists, alongside receipts and invoices for various plants, displayed in greenhouse style cases. A particularly insightful note from the artist Gustav Caillebotte to Monet asking for advice on building his own greenhouse illustrates how dedicated these artists were to their plants.

The show meanders through the emergence of the Impressionists, with sumptuously illuminated works by Manet and Sorolla, into symbolist works by Munch and Denis, before exploring the avant garde of the early nineteenth century through Matisse and Kandinsky. All the while, it anchors the works to the timeline of Monet’s own oeuvre. 

The intensity of the exhibition builds throughout before exploding in a riot of colour with Monet’s later works: here the abstraction of light and dynamic colours become purely abstract. During this period of the First World War, Monet’s two sons were both fighting, and he could often hear the roar of the battle from his garden at Giverny. Unable to help, Monet painted his efforts for peace – the languishing branches of willow trees dance like jubilant figures in swathes of warm colours. After Monet’s death his works became somewhat unpopular, until rediscovered by the Abstract Impressionists of the 1950’s – Jackson Pollock being one of them – who championed Monet for being so ahead of his time. The exhibition ends with a 12-metre triptych of water lilies – a triumphant and defiant work that is so beautiful it absorbs the onlooker in pure bliss. This is the first time the three works have been reassembled since being sold individually by Monet’s estate after his death.

Painting the Garden not only reaffirms Monet’s position as the greatest painter of gardens ever to have lived, but it also champions him as a creator of many new genres of painting – his cropping compositions, use of vibrant yet washed colours and abstract visuals went on to inspire countless movements – all thanks to his gardens. He once famously said: “I owe it to flowers that I became a painter”. 

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy of Arts, 30 January – 20 April 2016.