Published  14/10/2010

Impressionist Gardens. National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh, 2010

Impressionist Gardens

National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh
31 July–17 October 2010

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
14 November 2010–16 February 2011


We review this outstanding exhibition, which moves on to Madrid imminently, able to report that visitor numbers amounted to some 100,000, a highly commendable success. Edinburgh of course is the capital of a nation of gardening enthusiasts at all levels. The subject of this exhibition is of course highly marketable, colourful and seasonal and in the work of a core of Impressionist painters, also predicates considerable scholarship and skill on the part of today’s curators, Michael Clarke and Dr Clare Willsdon.

This remains a difficult exhibition to have curated so well. How often is the garden maker/owner also the artist? Rather seldom in terms of what is on show. But the exhibition is revealing in terms of the specialised knowledge effected by certain key artists. Indeed, there is a clear divide between those who know about flowers and plants, and those who don’t. And the better painters do turn out also to know their subject by direct experience. Of these, Claude Monet is naturally pre-eminent and combined throughout his long life that remarkable talent as a painter with an intimate knowledge of flowering plants, as developed within his own garden at Giverny, 70 kilometres from Paris, steadily expanded over no less than 43 years (and he only acquired it at the age of 50, with the fruits of his success already attained).

It must be noted here that this phenomenon and personal saga is superbly documented in a volume from l975, Monet at Giverny, now something of a collector’s item.1 It contains a lucid introduction by Andrew Forge (formerly a Contributing Editor of Studio International, painter, and Professor of Fine Art, Yale University). Also co-authoring were Claire Joyes and Jean-Marie Toulgouat. The latter grew up in the Monet household and both lived at Giverny and intimately knew Monet’s gardeners there. Forge clarifies the way in which Monet’s understanding of the dual effects of Light and Time brought magic to his work. Three works in this exhibition in particular reveal this transformation, both before and after Giverny. One early painting captures A Corner of his Garden at Vétheuil with Dahlias (1873). The second, slightly later (l881) is of his same garden at Vétheuil. But the masterly peak of achievement is revealed in the superb House among the Roses (1925), painted at Giverny in the penultimate year of Monet’s life, two years after a cataract operation on his right eye. Monet had brilliantly surmounted all physical problems of perception. And now the evolution of his garden and the summation of his talents coincided in a brilliant finale, to his career, and to Impressionism as such.

As Andrew Forge claimed, “Monet had to free himself from learned ways of drawing, the traditional constructs of the studio but also be revising and continually checking his own methods and the way in turn they were shaping the way that he saw”.2 The exhibition itself – so clearly a crowd-puller – is to some extent over-stretching the idea of the artist as planter (with the above exception). In the run-up such early artists as C-F.Daubigny’s, Cascade at St Cloud (1865) and Marco Calderini’s brooding Winter Sadness (l888), recording an almost contemporary treatment of the masonry edges of a pond, reveals artists seeking a feature subject per se. Such works acted perhaps as a foil to the Impressionist breakthrough.

An earlier painting by Henri de Brackeleer, Flemish Kitchen Garden (1864), seems to point the way for the later genre of Scottish ruralist painters such as James Guthrie (1859–1930), although the effect is unrelated beyond this example. Armand Guillaumin’s The Nasturtium Path (l880), beguilingly offers a direction forward. Other well-known names however soon accompanied Monet into the 20th century, such as Gustav Klimt. His Farm Garden with Sunflowers (l907), and Italian Garden Landscape (l913) show a surprising but effective affiliation to the Impressionist tendency.

Perhaps, more of a surprise here is the somewhat muted work by Van Gogh Garden with Path (1888), notwithstanding a spirited profusion of brush marks. Nearby his painting of Undergrowth (1889) flourishing unabated below trees is salutary for true gardeners, Garden with Path, still shows his characteristic brushwork “in jabs, zigzags, and short stabbing strokes” as the Catalogue describes it. For better or worse this makes it virtually impossible to identify the species of flower. And so the visitor duly encounters elsewhere: nasturtiums, dahlias, and roses and with Berthe Morisot, hollyhocks. There are a few diversions en route, and possibly riddles of actual plant identity (where there is otherwise clarity of definition) chiefly offered by the painters Joseph Bail and Frederic Bazille.

The Large Garden (1895), by Pierre Bonnard, indicates an understandably greater interest in his family disporting in an orchard rather than details of blossoms or blooms. Figures cavorting in the garden provided painters with welcome distraction when they were not truly interested in plants and flowers. In mitigation it was Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Britain’s greatest Landscape Architect of the 20th century, who said tellingly: “give me trees – I can’t master plants, flowers and shrubs.” (Luckily his wife Susan was well able to provide this knowledge and skill.)3

Clearly, a similar exhibition to the above could equally well be mounted on “Trees” – and perhaps even more comprehensively if Poussin and Claude are to be recalled. Hopefully one day it will, following this fine exhibition. The Exhibition Catalogue itself is a mine of information on its own subject field.4 Christmas approaches for presents.


1. Andrews Forge and Claire Joyes, Monet at Giverny, Mathews Miller Dunbar Ltd, London 1975.

2. Ibid: 7

3. See, Michael Spens, The Complete Landscape Designs and Gardens of Geoffrey Jellicoe, Thames & Hudson London/New York, 1994

4. Clare AP Willsdon, Impressionist Gardens, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2010.

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