Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse
Royal Academy, London, until April 20
How exhilarating it is to come in from the February cold and find gardens blossoming indoors. In this perfectly timed exhibition, poppies and chrysanthemums, fruit trees, irises, palms and water lilies threaten to push through canvases like windows in a greenhouse. Painting the Modern Garden is the most uplifting show you are likely to visit this year.
A quarter of the paintings on display are by Monet, who in 1893 developed the scheme for his garden at Giverny. Inspired by a display of water lilies at the Paris Universal Exhibition, and by the bridges depicted in Japanese prints, he constructed his garden with a scientist’s precision. It is so easy to lose oneself in his paint that one forgets that if gardening, like cooking, is both art and science, then Monet’s garden paintings must also be a conjunction of the two. Original plans for his pond and its water supply, and details of the work of horticulturalist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, who developed exotic hybrid lilies to plant there, bring the scientific dimension of these paintings refreshingly to life.
To stand before Monet’s Agapanthus Triptych, reassembled in Britain for the first time, is yet to lose all sensation in one’s limbs and feel blood rush to the head.
The paintings are placed in the context of the “great horticultural movement” of the late 19th century. We are encouraged to see the garden scenes of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Max Liebermann and others as reactions against the industrialisation of the age. There is irony in the fact that it was a new invention – American portraitist John Goffe Rand’s portable paint tube – that allowed the Impressionists to work en plein air in the first place.
So it is that in a tender, dusk-lit picture by Renoir, we see Monet painted, palette in hand, working at his outdoor easel. Meanwhile, in an arresting portrait by Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany (of stained-glass fame) is practically swallowed up by a flowerbed as he paints.
The Spanish and Catalan painters are a revelation. Santiago Rusiñol may be one of the less familiar names in this exhibition, but his ethereal oil painting of the gardens of the palace in Aranjuez, near Madrid, is among the most striking works. Rusiñol’s art was often tinged with sadness at Spain’s decline in the early 20th century. A triumph of symmetry and light, his painting of Aranjuez goes beyond the melancholic; as orange light penetrates the treetops and roses, they practically burst into flame.
After such vibrant garden scenes, one is quite ready to pull up a chair and find repose like the newspaper-clutching, picnicking characters of Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard in the later rooms of this cheering show.