Painting the Modern Garden

Chasing away the remains of this year’s winter blues is the Royal Academy’s landmark exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse.

It’s not just about Monet and his famous water lilies at Giverny- splendid though they are – but an exhibition centred on gardens as depicted by artists from around Monet’s lifetime (1860s to the 1920s).

During this time the worlds of gardens, gardening and art changed dramatically. Plant introductions such as dahlias from South America and chrysanthemums from Asia took Western Europe by storm. Further work on their hybridisation meant an explosion of colour and new forms such as the cactus dahlia.

All this proved an inspiration for a number of artist-gardeners (some would have preferred the term gardener-artist) who found the act of gardening deepened their understanding of colour and helped their development as artists. Monet said:

‘I perhaps owe it to flowers that I became a painter’.

All kinds of plants are represented from exotic tropical abundance through to a study of the humble nasturtium; the latter was thought by scientists at the time to emit light when in shadow. Even humble vegetables and fruit have their place – Pissarro was mocked by his contemporaries as ‘an impressionist market-gardener specialising in cabbages’.

The exhibition also traces the progress of a number of important artistic movements from impressionism through post-impressionism through to the avant-garde. There are around 120 works from notable artists such as Renoir, Klimt, Van Gogh, Munch, Cezanne, Klee, Sargent, and Matisse.

At the heart of the exhibition is the making of a garden. William Robinson’s influence with his ideas on naturalistic planting is very much in evidence here, but it’s the making of Giverny that takes centre stage. There is a fascinating collection of plans, photographs, plant catalogues and monographs. Letters show it wasn’t all plain sailing for Monet – the local farmers were concerned the strange plants [the now famous water lilies] he was planning to use would poison their livestock.

Two tiny details struck me at this point: how delightful it would be to receive a letter illustrated with a watering can (Manet), and selfies aren’t new. There’s a wonderful shadowy reflection of Monet in his lily pond taken using the relatively new – back then – medium of photography.

As well as the explosion of colour and floral form, another strong theme is the garden as a place of imagination, repose and solace. Benches and cushions abound, as do more reflective paintings. Here I liked a series by Henri le Sidaner, whose depictions of his garden are quite ghostly and ephemeral.

At the end of the tour we’re back with Monet again. A series of more sombre paintings tells the story of his resolutely staying on at Giverny, when the hell of World War I was all around him. From this point on until his death he paints feverishly, with his canvases growing ever larger. Finally we’re left with his glorious Water Lilies triptych, reunited especially for this exhibition.

Exhibition Details

Painting the Modern Garden is open every day at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD from 10am to 6pm until April 20th 2016. Note there are extended evening opening hours until 10pm on Fridays, and on the weekends of 19-20 March, 26-27 March and 16-17 April.

NB Entry is by ticket only, pre-booking advised.(

Can’t get to London to see it? There’s a cinema release on April 12th (in the UK, the international release is May 24th). I saw the exhibition’s curator Ann Dumas being filmed whilst I was there, so it promises to be insightful as well as a feast for the eyes.

Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst at her allotment.