The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920

June 3 - September 18, 2016 



 

American Artists, European Gardens

Many American painters developed their interest in garden subjects through travel and study overseas. Italy and England had long been favorite destinations, but in the 1880s admiration for French Impressionism drew increasing numbers to Paris and to rural artist colonies in Brittany, Normandy, and, most famously, the French village of Giverny. Observing traditional scenes of European labor and leisure, these artists mingled flower gardens, kitchen gardens, and farmland into idealized, nostalgic images.

Their style, however, was entirely modern. Lingering in the French countryside and in Parisian public parks, American artists began experimenting with Impressionist principles. They embraced plein air, or outdoor, painting, carefully studying sunlight and atmospheric conditions and applying unmodulated color in quick brushstrokes. Gardens were ideal settings for working in this avant-garde style, and they soon became favorite artistic subjects for American painters abroad and in the United States.


1. Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942)
Landscape with Farm Building, Concarneau, France, 1888
Oil on canvas, 11 1/16 x 14 3/16 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Henry Sandwith Drinker, 1950.17.31
 
The central focus on an empty field in this landscape is a far cry from the brilliant color of traditional garden pictures. As a break from her studies at the Acadèmie Julian, the Philadelphia-born Beaux worked in the artist's colony of Concarneau in northwestern France one summer, experimenting with integrating the immediacy of Impressionist plein air painting into her practice. While Beaux focused primarily on portraiture, she channeled her aesthetic and tactile appreciation of the landscape into the garden she would create at her home Green Alley, on Cape Ann in Massachusetts. Beaux's stark representation of the worked land of a farm in this canvas is echoed by artists in the next gallery who explore the garden as a space of labor as well as leisure.
 
 
2. Robert W. Vonnoh (1858-1933)
November, 1890
Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 3/8 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Martin Horwitz, 1976.22
 
Outside the French village of Grez sur Loing, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, a peasant woman rakes leaves in a garden. This quaint town was an easy 45-mile train ride south of Paris, and it became a popular retreat for American and British artists and writers. Robert Vonnoh studied its landscape and people at all times of year, creating colorful pictures of the surrounding fields in bright summer sunlight and melancholy scenes like the grey autumn afternoon depicted here.
 
Back in America, Vonnoh purchased his own rural home and property in the Pleasant Valley section of Lyme, Connecticut. One of his paintings of the fields around his house may be seen on the second floor of the Florence Griswold House.
 
 
3. Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)
Autumn Sunlight, 1888
Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 3/4 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.114
 
Theodore Robinson was among the first American painters to stay in Giverny, and he became friends with Claude Monet. While working in Monet's orbit, Robinson grappled with developing new ways to translate his impressions of nature to canvas without resorting to stylistic formulas. The vague treatment of the woman's face and vegetation with a flurry of brushwork imparts a sense of immediacy and blurred motion that may derive from Robinson's reliance on photographs as compositional aids. Although his Impressionist style and methods were informed by these modern approaches, Robinson retained the sentimental theme of peasant life in Autumn Sunlight.
 
Robinson's sensitivity to visual effects echoes that of fellow Impressionist John Henry Twachtman. In pursuit of rural subject matter, Robinson spent time with Twachtman in Greenwich, Connecticut, during periodic visits to America in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
 
Robinson's sensitivity to visual effects echoes that of fellow Impressionist John Henry Twachtman. In pursuit of rural subject matter, Robinson spent time with Twachtman in Greenwich, Connecticut, during periodic visits to America in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
 
 
4. Willard Metcalf (1858-1925)
The Eel Trap, ca. 1888
Oil on canvas, 21 x 25 1/2 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Purchase
2014.13
 
Metcalf was the first American artist to spend time in Giverny, arriving in May 1885. Unlike other artists who would soon join the emerging colony based in the village, he got to know Claude Monet and tutored his son and stepson in botany and ornithology. A devoted observer of nature known for his collections of butterflies and bird eggs, Metcalf immersed himself in the French countryside. He found equal interest in the work of agricultural laborers and fishermen, like the man adjusting an eel trap in this painting. Painted in Giverny shortly before Metcalf returned to America, this canvas looks ahead to works such as Dogwood Blossoms (1906), hanging nearby, in which the artist continues to incorporate peasant figures at work in nature.
 
 
5. Willard Metcalf (1858-1925)
Dogwood Blossoms, 1906
Oil on canvas, 29 x 26 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.92
 
Dogwood Blossoms shows Willard Metcalf's full embrace of the Impressionist technique to which he was first exposed two decades earlier in France. Painting in Old Lyme, he finally replaced the smooth surfaces and rich hues seen in The Eel Trap (ca. 1888), hanging nearby, with flickering touches of radiant, high-key color. The change in style allowed Metcalf to evoke the essence of early spring, when dogwood trees bloom.
Writing about his work in 1906, a critic observed that Metcalf's approach, without "affectations and mannerisms," gave him a unique ability to describe seasonal moods. He "translates into paint the freshness and fragrance of the fields, gardens, and evening air," the author noted. "It is nature, rather than the studio, of which he apprises us."
 
 
6. Edmund Greacen (1876-1949)
The Lady in the Boat, 1920
Oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.59
 
Melting colors accentuated with dashes of pigment convey "the fleeting beauty of the moment" that Edmund Greacen described as his favorite aspect of Impressionism. Between 1907 and 1909, the painter lived at the art colony in Giverny, France. He moved there to be near Claude Monet, whose work he admired despite their limited interaction in the village. Completed over a decade after Greacen's return to America, this square canvas with its softened forms attests to Monet's continued influence on his work. From 1910 to 1921, the artist summered in Old Lyme, where he often depicted pensive women contemplating gardens or lakes. Greacen's wife Ethol may have modeled for the figure in the rowboat.
 
 
7. Lawton S. Parker (1868-1954)
Laurel
Oil on artist's board, 10 x 11 7/8 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of the Artist
1954.6
 
Parker is one of approximately a dozen artists who painted in Old Lyme after spending time in the French art colony of Giverny. While in France, the artist often painted nude models posed outdoors in garden settings, an interest he developed while studying the human figure at the French art academies. Parker continued to work on the theme in Old Lyme; here, he depicts a nude figure against a backdrop of laurel, perhaps along the banks of the Lieutenant River.
 
 
8. George Brainerd Burr (1876-1951)
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, ca. 1914
Oil on Masonite, 23 1/2 x 19 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Mrs. Patricia Burr Bott
1979.8
 
Born in Middletown, Connecticut, Burr moved to Europe to study architecture before turning to painting. Over the course of fourteen years abroad, he lived in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Holland, and Capri, gaining exposure not only to Impressionism but also to German Expressionism and French Fauvism. Burr embraced the experimental methods, textured surfaces, and bolder colors associated with these modern styles in paintings like this one.
 
When he returned to Connecticut in 1910, Burr settled at Cricket Lawn, an 1844 house in Old Lyme attractive for its established plantings. Here, the artist's wife Lucretia tends their elaborate garden. When a reporter for the magazine Country Life in America described Cricket Lawn in 1914, he remarked on its seventy-five-year-old boxwoods and square flowerbeds. "Roses fill the right square," he wrote, "and the other is massed with such perennials as foxglove, peach bell, gaillardia, and coreopsis, as well as some annuals."
 
 
9. Daniel Garber (1880-1958)
Saint James's Park, London, 1905
Oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 11 15/16 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Vera White, 1960.18.2
 
Daniel Garber painted this scene in London during a three-year trip to Europe as a young man. The dense growth of green trees and bushes glimpsed across a lake, however, leaves few hints that Garber made his painting of Saint James's Park near the busy seat of British government. The oldest of London's royal parks, Saint James's Park was remodeled in the early 19th century by John Nash, landscape architect to the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Nash introduced a series of parks that threaded through the center of the British capital. Not only did his gardens add greenery to the growing metropolis, but his designs also gently transformed the park's formality into a bucolic sanctuary with meandering pathways and sinuous beds of brightly colored flowers. By excluding these paths from view, Garber encourages a sense of direct encounter with nature.
 
 
10. Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951)
Garden Path, 1897
Oil on canvas, 19 x 29 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.48
 
Garden Path captures DuMond's idea of simplicity in the way that swaths of color define large sections of the canvas. His attention to the physical path is highlighted in the way that he focuses the viewer's gaze on the ground -- calling attention to the shifting colors in the grass, the narrowed perspective of the path as it bends sharply out of view, and to the way that the foliage of the nearby shrubs blends together with the more distant cluster of rose bushes and trees.
 
Beginning in 1892, DuMond taught at the Art Students League in New York. He frequently took his students abroad in the summer months, holding classes out-of-doors in parks and gardens, and later continued that practice as a summer instructor in Old Lyme. Garden Path, which dates from a trip to France in 1897, reflects DuMond's own engagement with the landscape and his desire to teach his students not how to paint, but how to see.

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