My December column for What’s Up? Magazine

Inspirations: Great Gardens in Great Art

BY JANICE F. BOOTH

DEC. 20, 2021

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Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Terrace and Garden of an Italian Villa (c. 1762–1763)

With the holiday events whirling around us like colored lights from a sparkler, I thought I might offer you inspirations to ease your mind, gifts for your eyes and spirit—images of gardens in beautiful art and paintings of lush flowers in gardens, bowls, vases. These glowing canvases may sooth your spirit and maybe inspire you to create a Monet or Pissarro garden of your own. 

Perhaps you haven’t considered a cut-flowers garden; the Flemish and Dutch Masters’ creations of exuberant bouquets may capture your imagination. Or perhaps you’ll simply enjoy contemplating these glorious works of art.

We are fortunate to live in close proximity to renowned art collections in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, where beautiful paintings of gardens and flower-filled vases reside in hushed galleries. But for our purpose, I will invite you into the quiet, gorgeous gardens and flowers at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (nga.gov).

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Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Flowers in a Basket and a Vase (c. 1615)

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Georges Seurat’s The Watering Can–Garden at Le Raincy (c. 1883)

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Flowers in a Basket and a Vase (c. 1615)

Located in the West Building, Gallery 44. There’s nothing more elegant and fascinating than still life paintings of flowers and fruit done in glowing oils. Flemish artist, Jan Brueghel was given the moniker, Flower Brueghel because of his brilliant and, at the time, avant-garde paintings of flowers. Two of the many things you may notice as you linger before this painting: first, the flowers are the focus, the main and only subject of the work. That was startling in 1615, when the painting was exhibited. Brueghel the Elder was one of a small group of artists who dared to give over an entire painting to the natural wonder of flowers. A second point of interest is the detail lavished on each flower. Brueghel had a botanist’s eye for the structure of each flower, every petal. His tulips and peonies seem to pour out of the canvas into the viewer’s world.

Jan van Huysum’s Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (c. 1715)

West Building, Gallery 50. Wander down the galleries to number 50. There, among other still life paintings, is a lush work by Jan van Huysum. Peaches, grapes, and nectarines are piled in grand profusion and over the fruit tumbles a wildly beautiful disarray of tulips, carnations, jasmine, and more. You may want to replicate this still life as your holiday centerpiece—a change from more traditional arrangements. 

Claude Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge (c. 1899)

West Building, Gallery 85. From centerpieces to center-stage, Monet’s beautiful garden at Giverny needs no introduction. Nothing could better whisk away your stress and waft you into a more peaceful state than this scene of the arching bridge’s tracery, limpid lily pads, and lush reeds in shades of blue, green, and lavender. While few of us can hope to replicate Giverny’s elegance in our own gardens, we can attempt to capture the spirit of quiet, natural elegance and the color palette that Monet made famous. Expand

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Claude Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil (c. 1881)

Claude Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil (c. 1881) 

West Building, Gallery 85. Now here’s a garden we can all achieve, should we wish to. Towering sunflowers, cool blue-willow urns of decorative grasses, a gravel path, a child and small dog—if you’ve got the space, Monet has the garden design. Next summer your child or grandchild could be wandering along a similar path in the sunshine.

Gustave Caillebotte’s Dahlias, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers (c. 1892)

West Building, Gallery 85. In the same gallery, turn to enjoy the array of coral and gold dahlias in Caillebotte’s French garden. That woman and her dog might be you or your friend wandering in that lovely, summer haze of color and light. Perhaps a few dahlias in your spring planting plan? 

Camilee Pissarro’s The Artist’s Garden at Eragny (c. 1898)

West Building, Gallery 88. Wandering down a few galleries brings us to an entirely different garden view. Pissarro’s kitchen garden, bordered with pink camellia and rose bushes, and towering, golden sunflowers offer a glimpse of the beauty of ordinary things. The brick farmhouse, tidy rows of plants, a woman bending to harvest her vegetables, and the fruit trees swaying in the afternoon’s breeze. 

Georges Seurat’s The Watering Can–Garden at Le Raincy (c. 1883)

West Building, Gallery 88. The garden’s distant wall, the climbing vines, the path and its stone border, and the sturdy watering can—all familiar, bathed in the bright light of summer. Seurat’s close-up look at a small garden contrasts with Pissarro’s more practical one. In part due to Seurat’s use of Pointillism, you can almost feel the prickly warmth of Le Rainey’s summer garden.

Let’s now slip quickly over to the East Building for just a few more glimpses of glorious summer gardens:

Pierre Bonnard’s The Green Table (1910)

East Building, Ground Floor, Gallery 103E. Moving into the 20th century, Bonnard’s garden appears to be carved out of a sandy hillside, with blossoming fruit trees along a path, and a table laden with a few items left behind in the garden. Bonnard’s idea of gardening seems a bit looser, wilder—easier to maintain.

Emil Nolde’s Flower Garden, Kneeling Woman with Hat (c. 1908)

East Building, Mezzanine, Gallery 217A. Hop on the escalator or climb the grand, marble stairs to the Mezzanine and let Nolde’s garden take your breath away. In this gray season, what a treat to see the mass of pink, blue, red, and lilac flowers—and the lovely lady in her straw hat seated among the blooms. Perhaps a clustering of flower pots next summer could provide a similar experience of a riot of color? And the last stop on our in-person tour of gardens at the National Gallery (caution: this is not a “pretty” picture—in case you’d rather not trek to the Upper Level).

Joan Miró’s The Farm (c. 1921–1922)

East Building, Upper Level, Gallery 415B. I’ve concluded our tour with this surreal depiction of a farm to supply a contrast, taste of sherbet to refresh the eye, if you will. The harsh, blue sky, brown earth, and withering plants suggest how our gardens sometimes appear when we return from a month away on vacation.  

But I haven’t forgotten my promised virtual gardens tour, dear reader. All of the above-mentioned paintings can be seen online. And here are a few other treasures if you want to let your computer do the walking:

  • Claude Monet’s The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil (c. 1873)
  • Pier Bonnard’s Stairs in the Artist’s Garden (c. 1942–1944)
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Terrace and Garden of an Italian Villa (c. 1762–1763)

And, from the Phillips Collection, on-line (phillipscollection.org/library-archives):

  • Gifford Beal’s The Garden Party (c. 1920)
  • Pierre Bonnard’s Early Spring (c. 1908) 
  • Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs: Garden, Truro (c. 1983) and Provincetown Garden (c. 1983)

Enjoy! Happy holidays to one and all.

About J. F. Booth

I am a writer and educator.
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3 Responses to My December column for What’s Up? Magazine

  1. Re: Georges Seurat’s The Watering Can–Garden at Le Raincy (c. 1883). Rather than seeing the Seurat as an illustration of a desirable garden, look at the painting itself as a garden, a garden of paint strokes. Imagine if each dot of paint were a blossom or a leaf. Imagine planting a garden using that as your plan. That would make a spectacular garden, wouldn’t it?

  2. nlg49@charter.net says:

    I loved this article. So much easier on the body to view the paintings on your own computer. Great job!!

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