For centuries in Europe patronage of the arts and appreciation for the artfully arranged garden were inextricably intertwined. Wealthy dilettantes enjoyed a stroll in a perfectly trimmed maze of geometric hedges or a seemingly wild tangle of delicate blooms just as much as they thrilled at the beauty of a Titian or a Michelangelo. Artists looked to nature for inspiration, and gardeners brought an artful eye to the natural world.
This spring, Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art explores this connection in a self-curated traveling exhibit, The American Impressionists in the Garden. Through this show, Cheekwood president Jack Becker and Jochen Wierich, curator of art, hope to do more than display paintings of flowers near their lush gardens. They aspire to educate visitors on the vital relationship between American Impressionist painting and the garden.
Becker claims, “The American Impressionists in the Garden and its exploration of the relationship between painting and gardening is the perfect subject for Cheekwood. Just as Cheekwood beautifully blends art with the garden, visitors to this exhibition will not only gain a more in-depth understanding of American Impressionist art but will also take away a greater appreciation of the art of gardening.”
In the late nineteenth century, many factors conspired to make outdoor paintings a favorite for artists and collectors alike. Paint in tubes became widely available, making an artist’s studio portable. The thriving machine culture of the industrial revolution created hostile, mechanical, urban cityscapes from which many weary souls longed for retreat if only in the comfort of a painting on the wall. The Impressionist school of painting oriented itself in nature through its foundation on plein-air art, translated literally as painting in the “open air.”
The United States was seized by a frenzy for gardening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that dovetailed with the growing popularity of the Impressionist movement on this side of the pond. Becker became increasingly aware of this connection while working at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, many years ago. The site is the home of the famous Lyme Art Colony that became the epicenter of American Impressionism.
When he came to Cheekwood, Becker brought with him the dream of creating an exhibition that demonstrated the bond between painting and plant arts in American Impressionism. That vision became more tangible in late 2005 when Wierich joined the staff at Cheekwood. Together, the two of them began the painstaking process of sending loan requests for paintings, finding a publisher, and so on. Five years later, their dream will finally be realized in The American Impressionists in the Garden exhibition.
The show will feature approximately forty paintings and will include four garden sculptures made by American artists. It will be divided into three topical groups: “European Gardens,” “Gardens in America,” and “Garden Sculpture.” The European group will include paintings executed at the famous Giverny gardens in France. Wierich relates, “The small suburban plot to the more-sprawling luxurious gardens will be represented.” Paintings by Mary MacMonnies, Childe Hassam, and Ernest Lawson explore the full range of gardens in and around Paris. The “Gardens in America” component celebrates Impressionist inspiration from “artist colonies in the Northeast to garden environments in the South and across the United States,” according to Wierich.
Visitors will enjoy interactive features of the exhibit in Cheekwood’s sprawling botanical gardens. Plein-air painters will take part in demonstrations outdoors while the grounds are in full spring bloom. On March 25, Cheekwood will continue its Entrekin Lectureship Series with a talk by William H. Gerdts, a leading scholar on American Impressionism. The presentation will take place at Cheekwood’s Botanic Hall at 6 p.m. The American Impressionists exhibition runs March 13 through September 5, 2010.
by Sophie Colette