If gardens represent a fount of life, revealing some of humankind’s and nature’s finest living creative achievements, artists throughout the centuries have been inspired to recreate on canvas the fanciful delight of blooming plants selected and arranged to display the best of life’s natural pageantry.
As part of the 125th year celebration of the NYBG, the dynamic NYBG team (scores collaborated to mount this exhibition), are paying tribute to the gardens that inspired American Impressionist painters (a brand of impressionism that revolves around subject, not painterly style).
The showpieces of Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas receive an exquisite rendering in a unique floral exhibit at the Enid. A. Haupt Conservatory, and complementary display of more than 20 paintings and sculptures in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s Art Gallery.
Both the art work at the gallery and the show gardens in the conservatory capture American historical trends in painting (in plein air, influenced by French impressionism), around the turn of the 20th century and reflect the renewed interest in Colonial Revival gardens found in private residences and art colonies in the Hamptons and Old Lyme Connecticut.
The vibrant impressionist paintings and the radiant, ebullient floral showcase in the conservatory are mirror images of one another. The paintings reflect the subject American Impressionists were most enthralled by, American gardens. Artists appreciated that the gardens of the time uniquely characterized the domestic experience on the East Coast.
They highlighted how middle and upper middle class Americans turned to their gardens for respite, relaxation, emotional uplift and sanctuary from the confusion of the cities, the unhealthful effects of pollution with heavy industrialization and unsettling urbanization.
The entire exhibition encompassing both venues reveals the marriage between the artists’ impressionism and their veneration of floral homespun, of gardens whose symbolism acknowledged a unique, national character distinct from the formal European gardens of France and the heavy-handed Victorian gardens of the gilded age. Americans seemed to have a desire for such subjects, though every now and then artists honed in on the more formal garden aspect sometimes for utilitarian reasons.
John Singer Sargent painted The Fountain of Oceanus (1917) and Terrace, Vizcaya (1917), when he was visiting two wealthy families to complete portrait commissions. (both paintings are at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery) William de Leftwich Dodge built a studio house on Long Island in an airy, classical style and created a series of Impressionist paintings to magnify his design of the terraced formal gardens and intricate pergolas. (His painting The Artist’s Garden  may also be viewed at the Library Art Gallery)
At the time (1890s-up to WW I), there was a burgeoning interest in gardening and horticulture. Avid gardeners from spring to fall embraced planting multiple flowering species, so that when segments of flowers finished their growing seasons, others timed with sowings and plantings would be exploding into an exuberant cornucopia of petals as the earlier plantings waned. Thus, the gardens would always or nearly always be in a rainbow of blooms.
Concurrently, artists influenced by European impressionism were returning to America where they evolved their own cultural impressionism centered around intimate American lifestyle subjects. They eschewed the panoramic landscapes of the frontier style paintings of the golden west and expansive, mountain stained vistas. They supplanted images of vastness with the discrete, intimate, homely patchworks of every day life in the East. Our impressionists (like the French impressionists), painted urban scenes, old farms, villages with colonial styled homes, picturesque public parks, and unpretentious homestyle gardens where the gardeners themselves were nature artists. But these were uniquely American.
There was a synergy that occurred by happenstance. Following French Impressionist Claude Monet’s example at Giverney, some artists (Hugh Henry Breckenridge, John H. Twachtman, Maria Oakey Dewing, William de Leftwich Dodge), planted their own gardens to evoke inspiration, then applied paint to canvas distilling the picturesque living arrangement they had effected in an intriguing unity of aesthetics.
The conceptualization was that the gardens were echoes of their canvas counterparts; they were living paintings. What the artist did was to telescope the natural beauty, not with a realistic style of painting, but one that was restive, evocative, with heavier brushstrokes. The thickness of paint teased out amorphous shapes and these hinted at the innate virtuosity of animate flowers. Artists could glorify an expansive color palette which reflected life’s infinite variety and emphasized an explosive riot of colors bursts.
Gardens like Ceilia Thaxter’s (Appledore Island, Maine), provided a wealthy subject for artists like Childe Hassum who was a regular visitor to Thaxter’s seaside garden. He painted in plein air and enjoyed the luminosity of the sunlight bouncing off the alternate churning ocean waves and smooth glassine waters. Thaxter was a poet, writer, gardener, and quasi-horticulturalist whose informal summer artist colony was frequented by renowned romantic/abolitionist/regional writers (i.e. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett), and painters (William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassum), both of whom painted her and her colorful botanical evolutions.
Thaxter’s grounds, like other artist/gardeners of the period made sure her beds were replete with quaint and strikingly picturesque old-fashioned floral favorites of grandma’s “thrown-together” garden. Through various seasons, these might include spiking blooms of phlox, hollyhock, lupines, piquant snap dragons and pointed delphiniums, the popular, tasty sweet peas, puff-ball hydrangeas, carpeting forget-me-nots, bachelor buttons and sweet-faced violas, that ran like pixies up to the edge of porches and backdoors and nooks and crannies. And in corners blue and yellow iris might appear to their finest advantage. From spring to fall, an exquisite luxuriance of flowers blossomed. Examples of these species may currently be seen blooming in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory floral show.
These widely planted varieties along with roses, peonies, cleomes (spider flowers), baby’s breath, cosmos, strawflowers, poppies, and golden tickweed at various times of spring and summer months flourished in wide swaths of varicolored beds planted to imbue a non-formal seemingly random outgrowth.
Conscious gardeners intentioned the appearance of helter skelter, profuse arrangements, as if the plants themselves decided which spots suited them best and plopped there unceremoniously to stretch out and take the sun and rain with ease.
Attention was given to colonial revivalist styles where gardens were utilitarian, intimate, and incorporated into the lifestyle arrangements of the family so that the matron of the house, for example, could fling open the backdoor and pick the heavenly scented lavender to create sachets or go to the side of the house to pick peonies for a table arrangement.
Beginning with inspiration from the artists whose adoration of vintage gardens as a throwback to a more gentile and nostalgic time, Guest Curator Linda S. Ferber applied her expertise to investigate seminal works, some known, some from less renowned American Impressionists. From the guest curator’s selections which included one formal garden, the predominance of works encompassed the artistic loveliness of dooryard gardens of homes in various locales in the East, some in Pennsylvania and Maine and some in the Hamptons, New York, which picture grey shingled houses festooned by splashes of variegated hued plants. Other works were of public parks and Childe Hassam’s, Horticulture Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893). The various works then provided the creative heart for Francisca Coelho and the horticultural staff to gain their inspiration and provide the doorway into recreating a three season garden encapsulating the style, elegant simplicity and peace-filled homey comfort these American gardens exuded.
Their splendid result abides in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory even to the recreation of the grey clapboard, white shuttered country cottage that one would adore living in to escape the frenetic pace of the city. The cottage has a porch with rocking chairs and, if you sit in one and look out on the hollyhocks, foxgloves, delphiniums, sweet peas, beauteous painted tongue, and all the flowers previously mentioned here (you need to take an up close and personal view to catch them all), you will exhale a deep breath and allow the fragrances and mystical plenitude of nature to incite your senses and move you to a peaceful sense of well being.
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas runs from May 14-September 11, 2016. Visit the NYBG site for programming.