In a 1959 review for The Nation, Fairfield Porter wrote that “New Images of Man,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, was “held together by a tenuous theme.” Porter continued: “like most themes, it is forced, and therefore interesting.” His point was that organizing a show around a theme as nebulous as the “imagery of man” (in an era dominated by figureless abstraction, no less) was bound to produce uneasy juxtapositions of dissimilar artists and incoherent commitment to the topic at hand. And yet, despite these imperfections—nay, because of them—the exhibition held interest.

“Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence,” an exhibition now on view in the Metropolitan Museum’s Robert Lehman Wing, is also held together by a theme, but it’s not a particularly tenuous one. Organized by Susan Alyson Stein, the Met’s Engelhard Curator of Nineteenth-Century European Painting, and Colta Ives, a Met Curator Emerita, the exhibition “explores horticultural developments that reshaped the landscape of France and grounded innovative movements—artistic and green—in an era that gave rise to Naturalism, Impressionism, and Art Nouveau.” Objects on display date from the late seventeenth century to 1936 and include a wide range of media: paintings, photographs, and printed materials, among others. The show’s real focus, however, is impressionist painting of the second half of the nineteenth century. Impressionists and gardens, of course, go together like biscuits and gravy.

Impressionists and gardens go together like biscuits and gravy.

And yet, focusing on the subject of an impressionist painting will only get you so far. The achievement of the impressionists was to render the painted subject secondary, if not completely irrelevant, to the visual concerns of the artist—his impression. John Ruskin’s 1857 description of contemporary painting in his Elements of Drawing clarifies their visual project:

The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.

In their attempt to tap into the immediacy of naive perception, to register colors “without consciousness of what they signify,” the impressionists more or less eschewed consideration of their subjects as conceptual, narrative, or symbolic elements.

As such, it should come as no surprise that this exhibition’s focus on the subject matter of gardens and parks provides little in the way of new insight into the working process or aesthetic innovation of Impressionism. Luckily, the historical subject the curators have chosen is compelling in its own right, and the works of art, drawn almost entirely from the Met’s collection, stand well enough on their own.

The exhibition’s historical tenor is established by its first gallery space, “Revolution in the Garden.” The space tracks the development of French horticulture from the geometric Baroque Formal style (documented later in a number of haunting photographs by Eugène Atget) to the more libertarian Landscape Garden aesthetic. In the mid-eighteenth century, French Jesuit missionaries returning from the Far East brought back accounts of Chinese gardens replete with “beautiful disorder” and “anti-symmetry.” At the same time, French tastes gravitated towards the similarly meandering style of English landscape architects such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton.

The eventual and hard-won democratization of France hastened the appropriation of aristocratic leisure spaces for public use. Growing industrialization and urban crowding led Napoleon III, guided by his commissioner Baron Haussmann, to embark on an immensely ambitious overhaul of Paris’s urban layout in 1853. Their efforts to widen and straighten Paris’s medieval avenues, to regulate a consistent and uniform façade for city buildings, and to establish more than thirty new parks and squares for public use gave sunshine and fresh air to the newly modernized “City of Light.” When, a century earlier, Voltaire concluded his anti-royal, anti-theocratic satire Candide (1759) with the dictum “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (his own plot of greenery, by the way, was cultivated by paid laborers), it’s unlikely that the French gadfly could have guessed how important the garden would become in an increasingly affluent and democratic Parisian society.

Gustave Le Gray, Oak Trees and Rocks at Fontainebleau Forest, 1849–52, Salted paper print from paper negative, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But even as Haussmann’s efforts brought a taste of natural life and open space to France’s industrial capital, Parisians seeking even wilder and more remote locales fled in increasing numbers to the rural countryside. The Forest of Fontainebleau, once the remote and untamed muse of the Barbizon School painters, was soon overrun by “ecotourist” weekend warriors.

With them came more artists. Monet’s Bodmer Oak (1865), a sunlight-splattered view of the unpeopled Fontainebleau forest floor, is described here and elsewhere as a predecessor to his more famous Luncheon on the Grass of Fontainebleau (1865–66; not included in this exhibition) but deserves recognition in its own right as one of Monet’s early naturalist masterpieces. Painterly photographs by Gustave Le Gray, who experimented with waxed-paper negatives in order to shorten his exposure time to about twenty minutes, make direct conversation with the nearby oil compositions of Monet and Corot. The shorter exposure time allowed Le Gray to achieve a clearer sense of light in the ephemeral moment—also a primary objective of the impressionists.

Represented by fifteen paintings, Monet shines forth as the exhibition’s leading light. This makes sense. The Frenchman had a long-lasting and industrious career in the vanguard of French painting, and was also a consummate gardener. His Adolphe Monet Reading in a Garden and Garden at Sainte-Adresse (both 1867) form a dynamic duo, demonstrating control of atmospheric perspective and the subtleties of tone modulation—establishing Monet as a clear successor to Corot. These pleasant pictures of outdoor society-life typify the park and garden paintings of the exhibition’s middle section.

Claude Monet, Garden at Saint-Adresse, 1867, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nearby, dueling interpretations of the Garden of the Tuileries by Camille Pissarro (one On a Winter Afternoon, the other On a Spring Morning; both from 1899) convey a central project of impressionist painting. Seen side by side, the slight differences in atmosphere, temperature, and composition—registered by Pissarro from the lofty perch of his apartment on the Rue de Rivoli—speak to the particularity with which the impressionist painter renders his immediate experience.

A gallery titled “The Revival of the Floral Still Life” includes a number of still lifes that show off both the botanical diversity available to citizens and the stylistic diversity of the painters’ hands. But these flower setups seem out of place in the context of the rest of the exhibition’s plein air examinations of man’s relationship to natural spaces. You will, however, find exceedingly interesting paintings, as well as contributions by icons of the era such as Degas, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh.

The garden’s role as a place of respite from modernization is central to the exhibition.

“Public Parks, Private Gardens” dips its toe into the twentieth century, but it’s telling that the organizers chose Vuillard and Bonnard, two of the supposedly more conservative innovators of the time, as primary representatives. Vuillard’s Garden at Vaucresson (1920, reworked in 1926, 1935, 1936) and Bonnard’s From the Balcony (1909) have much in common, with their frontal tangles of foliage beyond and through which one may find semi-hidden figures that alternately advance from and recede into their verdant milieux. These two works normally hang together in the Met’s permanent galleries, a natural pairing preserved by this exhibition’s curators. Though their obscured views, unbalanced compositions, and woolly paint-handling hint at abstraction to come, the two paintings nevertheless demonstrate resolute attention to the environment at hand, making them fitting works to bracket the exhibition’s chronological extent.

Edouard Vuillard, Garden at Vaucresson, 1920; reworked 1926, 1935, 1936, Distemper on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Video presentations in painting exhibitions almost always do more harm than good, but a favorable 1915 film clip of Monet at his easel gives us a glance at both the artist’s creative process and his magnificent garden. Uniformed in a spotless white linen three-piece suit, straw hat, long beard, and dangling cigarette, the painter exudes a composure that seems almost unfathomable when compared to the frenzied, shimmering Monets that hang near the video display.

The garden’s role as a place of respite from modernization is central to the exhibition. From 1914 to 1917, while World War I raged as close as thirty miles from his Giverny country home (the sounds of gunfire frequently interrupted the tranquility of his work), Monet plugged away at his increasingly abstract, increasingly decorative water lilies series. Younger modernists responded to the calamity of war by changing their art to engage with what they saw as wide-scale social collapse, but Monet remained resolute in his artistic project. Staying put as colleagues and neighbors retreated from Giverny for safer lands farther from the Front, the surly painter of seventy-four wrote to his friend, with more than a touch of grandiosity, “si ces sauvages doivent me tuer, ce sera au milieu de mes toiles, devant l’oeuvre de toute ma vie” (If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work). If the Kaiser’s infantrymen had indeed forced their way to Giverny, they would have likely found Monet at work in his garden.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 47
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