Celebrate the bountiful beauty of flowers with the masterpiece exhibition The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920. The show profiles some of the finest art of the early 20th Century, when gardening became a favorite pastime of the American middle class, inspiring artists to plant their easels outdoors and paint with stunning results. This traveling exhibition, on view in the Museum’s Norfolk Southern Special Exhibition Gallery from June 16 through September 6, 2015, illuminates the intertwining stories of this Garden Movement and the work of America’s best Impressionist artists. Admission is free.
The Artist’s Garden showcases more than 70 masterworks by renowned painters like Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, John Henry Twachtman, Theodore Robinson, Gari Melchers, and Cecilia Beaux. The exhibition is organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the oldest museum and art school in the United States, and many of its key paintings are from PAFA’s rich collection. Others are lent by private collections and prominent museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Impressionist paintings captivate us with their vigor and immediacy, thick paint, and bright colors,” says Chrysler Museum Director Erik Neil. “Our galleries of French painting introduce this movement with extraordinary works by Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. This complementary exhibition allows us to compare these masters with dozens of works by their earliest American admirers. It’s a rare treat!”
Many artists in this period were avid gardeners who adapted their own yards to become subjects for their work. Their models included the great palace gardens of Europe, such as the Villa Corsi-Salviati near Florence, where William Merritt Chase painted An Italian Garden in 1909, a spectacular sun-drenched study of formal walls and terraces (and a Chrysler Collection favorite). Others preferred the more intimate flower-filled yards of Claude Monet, as seen in John Leslie Breck’s Garden at Giverny (In Monet’s Garden), painted between 1887 and 1891, a scene of tall flowers crowding around a slender dirt path. The exhibition explores these choices: how artists organized their gardens, what they planted, and why certain flowers were favorites.
“French Impressionism was a starting point, but these artists developed unique American voices and styles,” explains Alex Mann, Brock Curator of American Art at the Chrysler. “They formed artist colonies in historic towns like Cornish, New Hampshire, and Old Lyme, Connecticut, and they had special admiration for native species like phlox and goldenrod.”
These stories trace the evolution of garden painting from its European roots to domestic soil, with sections devoted to the rural artist colonies and to urban gardens. The Garden Movement emerged in response to the rapid growth of America’s cities during these decades, with social critics demanding more public green spaces. The paintings demonstrate the relationship of the Garden Movement to these new parks and to the growth of gardening as a suburban, middle-class hobby. Gardens, both real and in paint, fulfilled a widespread desire for connections to the natural world.
Other thematic sections consider women’s presence in gardens, both as elegant counterpoints to exquisite roses and hollyhocks, and as designers and caretakers of these colorful, natural spaces. Women also were artistic interpreters of their beauty. Many of the works in the exhibition are by female painters. Major pieces by Maria Oakey Dewing and Jane Peterson show that gardening and garden painting offered key opportunities for women to express their creativity in art just as highly esteemed as that by their male contemporaries. The Chrysler expands this theme with paintings by Susan Watkins and sculpture by Harriet Frishmuth—notable works from its own collection.
Gardens and flowers were also inspirational for the decorative arts, and centerpieces of the show are stained glass windows by the two leading American designers in this field, John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Drawing from its own renowned glass collection, the Chrysler adds to these displays with a magnificent Tiffany pond-lily lamp, as well as important examples of American art pottery. Of special note in the final section of the exhibition, “The Garden in Winter,” are the Chrysler’s painted ceramic tiles by the Rookwood Pottery Company, in dialogue with an impressive collection of winter scenes by Twachtman, Abbott Thayer, and the Tonalist master George Inness.
“Even when covered in snow, gardens fascinated these artists,” says Mann. “In their eyes, a blanket of white is really a luxurious patchwork of blues, grays, and purples. Winter signified promise, and we can imagine the rich colors of spring just under the surface and preparing to explode.”
Though the acclaimed exhibition covers all four seasons, it is on display in Norfolk only as Chrysler’s summer anchor show. The Artist’s Garden next travels to Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn.
“This spectacular exhibition affirms the Chrysler’s commitment to bringing art of the highest quality to our region,” says Neil. “A hundred years ago these Impressionists approached a traditional subject—flowers—with new energy and new ideas. Today we honor their spirit with exhibitions that are both a pleasure to view and, we hope, will inspire new generations to paint and be creative.”
The Chrysler Museum is pleased to have several local partners for The Artist’s Garden, offering Hampton Roads with not only companion exhibitions, but a slate of eclectic events and programs that explore the legacy of the Garden Movement in Tidewater Virginia.
Check www.chrysler.org for programs for The Artist’s Garden.