Gardens, Monet and other Artists

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867 Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’, begins and ends with Monet; Matisse barely appears, perhaps included in the title purely for alliterative effect.  Monet provides the constant touchstone running through this beautiful exhibition, and it is a joy to see the development both of his painting style and his gardens from the 1860s – on the cusp of Impressionism – to the majestic waterlilies of his final years.  The RA has brought together a fascinating range of lesser known canvases (many from private collections and American museums) that are the more interesting for not all being ‘masterpieces’.  4409There is ‘Lady in the Garden’ (above, 1867), a smaller and simpler version of the Musee d’Orsay’s magisterial ‘Women in the Garden’; and then there is the comparatively garish scene of the artist’s children dwarfed by hordes of sunflowers of 1880. ‘The Artist’s Garden at Argenteuil’ (1873) and Renoir’s almost identical view with Monet at his easel (above right) contrast with the early flower studies by these artists and illustrate the rapid – and t0 many unsettling – development towards Impressionism.

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The gap between these two pairs of paintings was filled, in historical terms, by the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.  Frederic Bazille, killed in this conflict, is an often forgotten contemporary of the early Impressionists.  The ghostly figure in his sunlit garden scene ‘Les Lauriers roses (The Terrace at Méric)’ (above, 1867) is a poignant reminder of a career cut short. nasturtiums-1.jpg!Blog It is also good to see more of Caillebotte, a more precise Impressionist whose passion for gardening is clear in the most believable of many painted nasturtiums (left, 1892), and in ‘The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres’ (below right), a view that would be chosen by none but a gardener.images

Then the exhibition opens out to embrace a host of international artists, including several I didn’t know such as Joaquin Sorolla and Laurits Tuxen, and others whose paintings of gardens were new to me.  Sorolla’s portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (below right, 1911) surrounded by a an explosion of blooms is a floral highlight, while Singer Sargent is represented by numerous lilies from the same period as ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ (though the absence of this piece is not quite compensated by ‘Garden Study of the Vickers Children’).84972034_Painting_the_Modern_Garden_Monet_to_Matisse__Royal_Academy_IMAGE_TO_PROMOTE_EXHIBITION-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA

The RA must have relished the garden theme as an opportunity for a theatrical approach with the ‘atrium’ construction in the second gallery and the ‘greenhouse’ effect display cabinets.  The garden benches I could live with but for the rest I would have preferred the gallery walls to be used to their full glory, to see the painted geraniums tumbling from above, the lilies below, the canvases clustered as they would have been at a Paris Salon in very similar rooms to these in the late 19th century.

painting-the-modern-garden-monet-to-matisse-at-royal-academy-of-artsThe ‘Avant-Gardens’ gallery (I forgave the pun) is an odd mixture, though successful in highlighting the many diverse directions taken by artists in the early years of the 20th century.  Some could have been better represented – Matisse particularly, and from all Van Gogh’s sinuous irises and flowering cherry blossom a strangely static and formal Auvers garden scene has been chosen.  Nonetheless there was a glorious selection, with Klimt’s mosaic of leaves and flowers (above left), Kandinsky’s Murnau garden of 1910, Munch’s glowering, biblical apple tree in pure blue, green and yellow, and Emil Nolde’s thickly impasto poppies (below right, 1908).PaintintModernGarden_slide1

Meanwhile it was a pleasant surprise to find lesser known (and difficult to classify) artists such as Henri Le Sidaner and Santiago Rusinol represented so well, their canvases facing one another across the subsequent gallery, the one crepuscular (‘Steps, Gerberoy’, 1902, below), the other drenched in steps-gerberoy-by-henri-le-sidanierSpanish sunlight (‘Gardens of Monforte’, 1917, below).  Both artists had inherited the Impressionist interest in atmospheric light effects, but rejected other elements of the creed; Le Sidaner, if anything preferred the term ‘Intimiste’ while Rusinol rejected the broken brushstrokes of Impressionism, preferring to maintain the solidness of 2480objects.  Similarly, the Nabis painters Bonnard and Vuillard worked from memory and sketches rather than completing their work en plein air and adopted the Fauve technique that gives blank canvas a positive role in the composition. A whole gallery is given over to large scale works by these two artists, including Vuillard’s two panel  ‘The Garden of Le Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne’ (1898).

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Then, swiftly, as if with relief, the narrative returned to Monet, with two rooms full of waterlilies and weeping willow (above, 1914-15), sensuous and contemplative, allowing the eye to melt into the deep pigments, the reflections and stillness.  The final Agapanthus triptych (part below, 1916-19) was a the culmination of this period and – reunited for the first time in Europe since it was painted – a suitably climactic finale.

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The London Impressionist and Modern Sales

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They are always the high point of the year for auction houses – and the rest of the art world gathers round these dates, keen to siphon off some of the excitement, glamour and wealth.  Bookended by the Olympia and Masterpiece fairs, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were once again head to head last week, vying for record-breaking sales totals.

At Christies the top lot was Monet’s ‘Iris Mauve'(1914-17, left) –  complemented by vases full of fresh indigo irises that  flanked the doorway of the main saleroom.  The fluid, expressive style and large scale of the canvas is akin to his more famous water lilies, created during the same period in which Monet devoted himself to depicting his garden at Giverny.

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Irises as a motif are perhaps associated more readily with Van Gogh; however in this sale Van Gogh was represented by an early work very unlike the immediately recognisable bright, impasto, stylised paintings for which he is best known.  Firstly, ‘The Windmill near The Hague’ (1882, above) is a watercolour, a gentle, watery medium that seems entirely at odds with Van Gogh’s temperament; secondly, it is executed in muted naturalistic colours and depicts a traditional Dutch subject in a fairly unobjectionable way – a far cry from the harsh treatment of Dutch peasants in ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885) and even more so from the primary colours and striated brushstrokes of Provence from 1888. Yet it has a certain charm to it, and marks an important step in Van Gogh’s early steps as a painter.

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While Monet’s Irises paved the way, there were more glorious floral paintings beyond. The vibrant flowers in Chagall’s ‘Bouquet pres de la Fenetre’ (1959-60, right) seem to hover within an aura of light against a dreamlike blue cityscape, with Chagall’s distinctive symbols of the rooster and the floating couple.  The flowers themselves are recognised as a symbol of romantic love within the deep luminous blue of this Mediterranean idyll.

341L15006_8B45Y_FinalMeanwhile, at Sotheby’s the piece de resistance was Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Gertrud Loew (1902, left).  One of several pale and diaphanous portraits of women, this painting shows an affinity to Whistler – as well as the late 19th century interest in Japanese art in the long narrow format and the ornamental ciphers in the top left corner.  It marks an important transition in Klimt’s work from a more traditional portrait style to the decorative, hieratic, symbol-laden ‘golden period’ paintings of just five years later.  Here we begin to see that ‘densely woven tapestry of ornament’ that conjures ‘sublime surface effects by playing with the contrast between abstract ornamental forms and the highly erotic sensuality of the figures’ (as cited by the catalogue).  Gertrud Loew’s father ran the Loew Sanatorium in Vienna, and the portrait was painted shortly before her marriage to Dr. Hans Eisler von Terramare.  It was private commissions such as this which established Klimt’s preeminent position in the Viennese art world of the day.alfred_sisley_le_potager_d5915638h

Both sales showed solid examples of Alfred Sisley’s work, the limpid colours and light brush marks creating quiet landscapes that yet perfectly capture the vibrancy of a fleeting moment in nature.  Christies’ ‘Le Potager’ (1872, above) shows a kitchen garden half in shadow; the formal layout of the beds gives a sharper perspective than many of Sisley’s compositions – in contrast to the rural landscape of ‘Chemin a l’Entree d’un Bois’ at Sotheby’s (1890-1, right). 046L15006_869F3-1It is one of many paintings inspired by Sisley’s move out of Paris following the Franco-Prussian war to the outskirts of Louveciennes where he was surrounded by the chateau grounds, cottage gardens and orchards. It was in this fruitful year that his work was brought to the attention of the Impressionists’ dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose impact on the development and promotion of Impressionism has recently been celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery.

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leonard_tsuguharu_foujita_jeune_fille_a_la_marguerite_d5914225hThere was a wonderful lively oil sketch by Manet at Sotheby’s, ‘Vue Prise de la Place Clichy’ (1878), and works by Bonnard at both, typically loosely handled and submerged in colour, with areas of blank canvas used as a positive element alongside the bold pigment (‘Cabanons au Cannet’, 1933, at Sotheby’s, above).  There were a good few compositions by Odilon Redon and Tsuguharu Foujita (‘Jeune Fille a la Marguerite’, 1960, right) at Christies which were unusual to see, august_macke_schlafende_reiter_d5914201has well as numerous German Expressionists from both Die Brucke and Blaue Reiter camps (such as August Macke, ‘Schlafende Reiter, 1910, left), and a few interesting early Mondrians in a nascent Expressionist vein – at Christie’s, ‘Farm Buildings in White and Red near a Green Field’ (1906-7, below).  There were some charming small Renoir oil sketches of girls, far less sugary and more immediately affecting for being unfinished, and a snowy Utrillo more enigmatic and full of subtle tonalities than the classic Montmartre street scenes.

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There were also a selection of highlights from the Modern British sale at Christies, including a wonderful watercolour market scene by Edward Burra – but Burra doesn’t belong among the Impressionists so that will wait for the next post…