Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy review

Olivia McEwan
Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau the Garden II, 1910 (Source: Royal Academy)

Royal Academy | ★★★★★

At the turn of the century the concept of the modern garden – a tended, cultivated individual plot to be enjoyed as a respite from urban life – increased in popularity throughout Europe and the US, with fervent intellectual interest in botany.

The Royal Academy captures the artistic reaction to this in its show Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which explores how the modern garden influenced the development of art from the early 1860s to the 1920s.

The impressionist movement is key, and most will recognise the much-loved water lilies of Monet adorning the show’s promotional material. But what emerges is an exhibition infinitely richer and more rewarding than a simple collection of pretty pictures.

The paintings assembled are overwhelmingly riotous in colour, full of fizzing life, all ingeniously arranged to create the illusion of a garden in full bloom. Through this the RA cleverly demonstrates just how much of an impact the garden had on painters during this time.

Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Source: Royal Academy

The collection includes works by such giants as Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Sargent and Van Gogh, but a personal highlight was Joaquín Sorolla’s 1911 portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (pictured below), surrounded by the huge swirling purple, yellow and white flowers of Tiffany’s Long Island home.

One surprising room, amusingly entitled Avant-Gardens, explores the influence these patches of greenery had on other artistic movements. Here the likes of Kandinsky and Emile Nolde interpret the subject matter in heavily abstracted, primary colours of great intensity.

Also surprising is Gustav Klimt’s Cottage Garden, painted in muted reds and greens, contrasting with his more famous glittering and gilded works.

The show is a triumph: an excellent idea, executed with imagination and flair, presenting material that moves far beyond the boundaries of impressionism.

All of this, however, won’t prepare you for the impact of the final room: here, the panels of Monet’s monumental triptych Water Lilies (Agapanthus) have been reassembled from the Cleveland Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri.

A culmination of his iconic works made at his garden at Giverny, they represent a profound response to the traumas of the First World War. It’s an exhilarating display, and a jewel in the crown.

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