Impressionist Gardens

August 2010

Publication: The Times

Impressionism, as it came to be known, flourished principally in France in the 1860s, '70s and '80s. As the term suggests, the many artists  who espoused and practised the movement's tenets were principally concerned with capturing mood and moment as well as creating an impression of events or landscapes. The ever-changing light caused by the movement of sun and cloud, as well as the seasons, was also a major feature. The principal adherents included Sisley, Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Pissarro and Manet. Work by all of these is to be found here.


Many of the works created by these artists were conceived, if not completed, in the open and thus the parks and gardens of Paris, in particular, became a major focus of their work. This  show sets out to explore the relationship between these artists some of their principal subject matter.


One of the major challenges in organising such an exhibition is finding a suitable logic around which the work can ordered. Here, this difficulty has been overcome, to some extent,  by dividing the paintings into categories each with an accompanying colour scheme which is purports to reflect the mood of the works themselves.  This aspect, in particular, remains unconvincing, especially in the overcrowded Room V where the pink walls threaten to overwhelm the paintings themselves.


'Towards the Impressionist Garden' looks at the context from which Impressionism developed. Some of the movement's artistic precursors, such as Delacroix, show a looseness of touch and an ability to capture the natural movement of light and colour which is at odds with, for example, the more staid and highly symbolic flower paintings of Jean- François Bony and Simon Saint-Jean.


It was only in the era of Impressionism that the idea of separating flower and vegetable gardens took hold. The reasons behind this were complex but were partly because of suburbanisation and Baron Hausmann's planning reforms which saw huge swathes of Paris rebuilt with many accompanying gardens and parks. Thus the section dealing with market and kitchen gardens – disappointingly, however, many are noticeably devoid of human labour.


'Flower & Leisure Gardens of Mature Impressionism' is itself sub-divided into 'Private' and 'Public' gardens. Both show the Bourgeoisie at play but the former category, as one might expect, detail a more intimate sense of sequestered life  screened by plentiful foliage such as Manet's 'Croquet Party' from 1873. Although not as suggestive as 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' which the artist painted ten years earlier, the two couples nevertheless play in seclusion and privacy while sexual tension lurks palpably beneath the painting's surface. 


In 'A Woman and Child in a Garden' Berthe Morisot introduces one of the many important sub-themes into the complex visual codes found in many of the works. The image of the woman and child conveys the idea of prodigious growth and fecundity  – encouraged in part, one imagines, by the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. Other works in this vein abound and while some are free, spirited and convincing (Mary Cassatt's 'Summertime') others (Mary Fairchild MacMonnies' 'Roses and Lilies') appear to have been chosen because of their botanical content rather than their intrinsic artistic worth. 


Indeed, it is worth pointing out that while many of the names here will be familiar to a more general audience (besides those mentioned there are works by Gauguin, Renoir and Bonnard) others will be known only to a more specialised audience and have been chosen more for academic interest rather than their crowd-pleasing qualities. Perhaps this is a good thing but too many act merely as fillers while some are truly dull and lifeless (Ernest Quost's 'Morning Flowers' being one such example).


If you are one of those who likes to move under the chronologically derived designs of the organisers then the best here is reserved until last where Monet's lilies vie for attention with the electric energy of Van Gogh's gleaming, passionate brush-strokes and the early forays of genius undertaken by Klimt and Cézanne into the beginnings of abstraction.