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Claude Monet, Nympheas (Waterlilies), 1914-15, oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm, Portland Art Museum. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo © Portland Art Museum.

‘Painting the Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy, London

My first exhibition of the year came along in a whirlwind of florals, with botanical studies, flower-based still lifes, and intimate gardens scattered with pops of colour. A beautiful new show at the Royal Academy presents how artists have been inspired by both public and private garden spaces since the 19th century. European industrialisation during this time meant that a number of advances, including the improved availability of exotic seeds and plants brought in from abroad, caused a middle-class gardening phenomenon. No longer were these outdoor spaces limited to the use of the nobility; after industrialisation, the bourgeoisie could also get involved in garden cultivation and leisure. Beginning with Claude Monet in the 1860s, ‘Painting the Garden’ comprises over 120 works, including pieces by Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse. This is a celebration of how painting and horticulture can join together to create a mutually beneficial relationship in which both pastimes are able to flourish.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, oil on canvas, 46.7 x 59.7 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell, 1957.614. Photo © Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

Fans of Monet and Renoir are treated early on in the exhibition to a wonderful duo of paintings. The former’s garden at Argenteuil, which is filled with bushy plants and hybridised flowers, is depicted by both artists, though Renoir’s image - see above - also includes the figure of Monet painting at his easel. In Monet’s version, the red and yellow dahlia heads pour over the wooden fence, whilst a single white house crests at the top of the scene. However, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil reveals a very different impression, where the dahlias are significantly more controlled and houses line the background. Though experts have not been able to categorically state which depiction is the truthful one, it is often suggested that Renoir painted the more realistic image. Seeing the paintings together and being able to contrast them for oneself was a definite highlight of the show.

Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, 1917, oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956. Photo © 2015.

Following on from the gardens of the Impressionists, ‘International Gardens’ examines the horticultural painting of Britain, the United States and the rest of Europe. The room dedicated to ‘Gardens of Silence’ - that is, gardens devoid of human presence - additionally featured some particularly stunning pieces by the Catalan artists Santiago Rusiñol and Joaquín Mir y Trinxet. It also has to be mentioned that the Royal Academy named one of the galleries ‘Avant-Gardens’, which is pretty genius if you ask me. This is where the Post-Impressionists get to have their say on the matter, including Emil Nolde with his fantastic bursts of poppies, and the pointillist speckled flowers of Van Gogh. Kandinsky’s The Garden II is another loud and punchy piece with electrifying colours; a stark contrast to the peaceful garden scenes of the Nabis painters presented in the ‘Gardens of Reverie’ room. Though heavily influenced by Monet’s garden at Giverny, the dreamlike compositions of Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard reveal a floral wildness that is absent from the work of Monet.

Joaquín Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, oil on canvas, 150 x 225.5 cm, on loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York. Photo © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York.

To say that artists became obsessed with horticulture would be an understatement. Photographs of painters in their personal gardens displayed near the end of the show reveal how artists would not only spend time immersed in the inspiration of the outdoor space, with or without easel, they were also involved in the garden’s cultivation and maintenance. Seeing Kandinsky with a shovel in hand, or Klimt dressed in his famous sandals-and-robe combination standing peacefully in his garden, is an incredibly fulfilling experience. It is so easy to forget that these artists were real people, with real presences and interests. I never get tired of photographs and films showing my favourite painters and sculptors doing the most everyday of activities.

Wassily Kandinsky, The Garden II, 1910, oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm, Merzbacher Kunststiftung. Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung.

The exhibition concludes with an impressive curatorial accession: the three panels from Monet’s gargantuan Agapanthus triptych have been reunited for the first time in Europe since leaving the artist’s studio for an American private collection in the 1950s. These paintings, which now belong to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, were reworked constantly by Monet from around 1915 till his death in 1926. During this time, the artist’s eyesight was affected by cataracts, and after they were removed in 1923, Monet could see certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light. This gave his final works a blueish tinge, which is certainly apparent in the monumental Agapanthus triptych. As well as starting and ending the show, Monet’s presence is maintained throughout ‘Painting the Garden’ as the artistic godfather of the garden space, a role that the Academy provides convincing evidence for.

Painting the Garden: Monet to Matisse’ is on at the Royal Academy until 20th April. All images are courtesy of the Royal Academy.

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