For some of history’s greatest artists, their garden was their life’s work.
Claude Monet once said that flowers made him a painter. This particular quote now covers an entire wall in the exhibition Painting the modern garden: Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy in London, which examines the role of the garden in art history between 1860 and 1920. And such glorious gardens! On display are, among others, Emil Nolde’s lush irises, Vincent van Goghs stained lawns and Edvard Munch’s bountiful apple trees.
But it is Monet who is the master gardener, both in the artistic and practical sense. He left nothing up to chance when it came to his own garden, which is made evident by the artists’ very detailed letter to his six gardeners, which are also on display in the exhibition. The gardeners were told in great detail exactly how the peonies should be put in the ground and when the lawn should be fertilized.
Monet himself felt that his garden at Giverny in France was his greatest work of art. As he became more and more affluent, this was what he spent his money on. At the World Fair in Paris in 1889 Monet saw some entirely new species of water lilies that made such an impression on him that he decided to construct a lake in his own garden. To achieve this he had to buy an extra plot of land, seek planning permission from the authorities and create a diversion from the River Epte which ran past Giverny. In addition, he had to convince a group of protesting farmers that the lilies in the pond would not poison the water and kill their cows.
We can only imagine what the history of art would have looked like if these farmers had gotten their way. Monet painted his own water lilies in different varieties for 20 years, both with and without the Japanese bridge he had built over the small lake. While the rest of the garden was mainly inspired by British garden architecture, the lake and the surrounding landscape was like a corner of Asia. If you don´t have the chance to visit the exhibition in London, stop by the National Gallery in Oslo and the exhibition Japanomania in the Nordic Countries this summer. Here too, Monet and his Japanese garden are present.
Norwegian artists were also devoted to their gardens, not least Nikolai Astrup, whose art is currently on display in London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This fall, the exhibition will travel to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Bærum and at the moment you can experience how Astrup held onto the colors of his childhood in the exhibition Nikolai Astrup: The Way home at KODE in Bergen. Nikolai Astrup put a lot of effort into designing his garden at Jølster and among other things cultivated several new types of rhubarb. When he was finally content with how the garden looked, it became one of the primary subjects of his art during the last years of his life.
Claude Monet studied his own garden for hour after hour, year after year, and then painted it from memory. “These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession.” he said towards the end of his life. “They are beyond the strength of an old man, and yet I am determined to set down what I feel. I have destroyed some…I have begun others over again…and I hope that something will come of so much effort.’
Three artist’s gardens that you can visit this summer
Claude Monet, Giverny
Claude Monet spent 40 years perfecting the garden of his own home. It now delights visitors from March to November, about an hours train ride from Paris. While there, you can also peek into several rooms in Monet’s house, including his blue kitchen, his bedroom and his first atelier.
Emil Nolde, Seebüll
In 1927 the German artist and his wife acquired a plot of land not far from the Danish border where they built a striking modernist houses and an ambitious garden. The garden is quite romantic: The two main flower beds are shaped like an E and an A, the letters of the spouses’ first names. The garden is open from 1 March to 30 November.
Max Liebermann, Wahnsee
Liebermann built this large garden at his home in Wahnsee outside Berlin which include several smaller gardens with different themes. At the rear of the house, he also laid out a “nutzgarten” where he cultivated flowers for cutting, herbs and vegetables. Many of the flowers he planted in order to paint them. The museum is open to the public all year round.