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

June 3 - September 18, 2016 



 

The Urban Garden

While rural and suburban Americans designed gardens around their homes in the late 19th century, city-dwellers flocked to newly created public parks. These included New York's Central Park, planned by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1850s, and America's first botanical garden, which opened in Boston that same decade. Critics praised the newly constructed parks as peaceful oases amid the hectic frenzy of city life and as soothing environments in which the genteel classes could both rest and play.

American artists celebrated this new culture of urban leisure and sought to capture the energy and immediacy of outdoor city life in parks. Public parks sparked debates about the changing nature of the American metropolis, the construction of ever-taller buildings, and the influx of immigrants. As voices within the Garden Movement, artists participated in these debates through their representations of urban green spaces. Juxtaposing open landscape and imposing buildings, their images suggest the tension between the realities of urban development and the desire for bucolic peace.

 

48. Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
Across the Common on a Winter Evening, ca. 1885-86
Oil on panel, 5 1/8 x 11 5/8 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.70
 
Once a parade ground and cattle pasture, Boston Common had been transformed into an elegant park with elm-shaded promenades by the time Hassam painted this picture in the mid 1880s. Crossing it could provide a momentary respite from the traffic and crowds of city life, but Hassam refuses to let viewers turn away from the modern urban scene to lose themselves in nature. He instead fills the panel with glowing streetlights that mark the borders of the paths and of the park itself?the places where it meets the city. Systematic illumination also allowed the safe integration of parks into the urban fabric, literally throwing light on undesirable behavior in spaces shared by a range of social classes.
 
 
49. Maurice B. Prendergast (1859-1924)
Promenade, ca. 1915-18
Oil on canvas, 24 x 31 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, The Vivian O. and Meyer P. Potamkin Collection, Bequest of Vivian O. Potamkin, 2003.1.9
 
While middle-class urbanites could retreat to the suburbs to establish private homes and gardens, working-class city dwellers found access to nature through public parks reached on foot, by streetcar, or by commuter rail. Here, Prendergast shows us one such resort, Salem Willows park, a waterfront pleasure garden and promenade located at an industrial port near Boston. Like the city from whence its visitors came, the park teems with figures, mostly female, who sit on benches or stroll the grounds -- a popular vantage point for gazing at ships in Salem Harbor. Over the course of several trips to Europe, Prendergast absorbed the most avant-garde artistic styles, and here uses large dabs of bright paint to compose a landscape that is as visually stimulating as the city the pleasure seekers have left behind for the day.
 
 
50. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Peony Window Panel, Richard Beatty Mellon Mansion in Pittsburgh, 1908-12
Stained glass, Framed: 40 1/2 x 36 x 2 1/2 in.
Private Collection
 
This peony window comes from a larger, 10-panel Italian landscape window made by Tiffany Studios for the palatial Richard Beatty Mellon residence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In an urban setting, landscape windows like the one from which this panel came, served an important function. When cramped spaces made natural views unattainable, a stained glass window could cover undesirable sights with an imagined garden vista. In Mellon's case, this floral window supplemented his extensive estate garden, located on eleven acres.
 
 
51. Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
The Hovel and the Skyscraper, 1904
Oil on canvas, 34 3/4 x 31 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, The Vivian O. and Meyer P. Potamkin Collection, Bequest of Vivian O. Potamkin, 2003.1.5
 
Painting from the rear window of his West 67th Street apartment, Childe Hassam offers a view of New York City's Central Park that reveals the complex relationship between the city and the garden. He sets the park at a remove by composing the scene with a series of frames -- the scaffolding in the foreground, the buildings on the margins, and the implied outline of his apartment window. Each frame adds a barrier between the viewer and the park, which will soon disappear from view behind the new structure. Even the painting's title refers to the replacement of the old by the new; "hovel" refers to a stable built in the 1870s to house Central Park's sheep herd, and "skyscraper" to the iron frame rising before the artist's eyes. Hassam reinforces this tension by using soft, sketchy brushwork to define the snowy park and a strict system of vertical and horizontal strokes to delineate the architectural environment.
 
 
52. Guy C. Wiggins (1883-1962)
Washington's Birthday at Madison Square, 1927
Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.168
 
Guy Wiggins composed Washington's Birthday at Madison Square from vantage points on 23rd and 24th streets, looking north up Fifth Avenue in New York City. Although it began as a potter's field for the burial of the poor, Madison Square was converted into a formal park with landscaping and paths in 1870 and became the center of the city's most elite neighborhood during the Gilded Age.
 
Madison Square served as the location of numerous patriotic celebrations that assumed additional importance with the increase in immigration in the late nineteenth century. For six years beginning in 1876, the Statue of Liberty's torch and arm were installed in the park for fundraising purposes. Monumental arches were erected in 1889 on its Fifth Avenue border to commemorate the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as president, and in 1912, the park was the site of the first community Christmas tree lighting in America. Here, Wiggins again acknowledges the park's connection to American history and values; an inscription on the back of the painting in his hand explains that "the large flag and pole represent the sole effort of the great metropolis in commemorating the part played by its citizens in the Great War."
 
 
53. J. Alden Weir (1852-1919)
My Back Yard (No. 1), 1890
Etching and drypoint on paper, 7 15/16 x 5 15/16 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.158j
 
My Back Yard, (No. 2), 1890
Etching on paper, 7 5/8 x 5 15/16 inches
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
2002.1.158k
 
These two etchings depict the sort of outdoor space upper-middle-class city dwellers created for themselves as extensions of the home. The artist carved out space behind his house at 11 East 12th Street in New York City with a tall, solid fence and screening trees to create the sort of privacy unavailable in a public park. A small fountain or sandpit where Weir's daughter plays and the presence of a clothesline indicate that a backyard could provide areas for both leisure and household chores.
 
Weir's backyard allowed him an opportunity for rest and relaxation outdoors while in the city. But to make a full retreat into nature, Weir and his family traveled each summer to their two Connecticut country homes in Branchville and Windham.

 

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