Green fingers and art legends: a new exhibitions on gardens and painting in London

We take a look at the exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which opens on January 30 in London, and details art's long relationship with gardening.

The flower garden at Giverny by Claude Monet. DeAgostini / Getty Images
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What could be more charming, delectable or guaranteed to please your mother-in-law than an exhibition that consists of more than a hundred paintings focused on gardens, flowers and plants?

Like the Impressionist art that features so heavily in Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which opens tomorrow in London, the world of gardening has traditionally been denigrated as suspiciously anti-­intellectual, decorative and feminine. Somehow, it's just too nice.

The aim of the Royal Academy of Arts blockbuster, however, is to overturn this preconception by revealing the role that horticulture played in inspiring some of the most avant-garde artistic experiments of the early 20th century.

The exhibition charts the effect of the new, late-19th-­century middle-class garden on some of the most important figures in the history of modern art. It also explores the role that it played in helping to forge the avant-garde ideas that sparked the aesthetic upheavals of early 20th-century Modernism.

“It’s really that time when you see the rise of modern bourgeois, middle-class society as we still know it today, more or less,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Ann Dumas.

“So whereas before, gardening had been more of an aristocratic pursuit, or else just kind of functional gardens where people grew food, this kind of modern, modest scale, urban garden is suddenly becoming popular. And with it we see this enthusiasm for plants and catalogues and nurseries, which really started in the period covered by this exhibition.”

The exhibition includes more than 120 works by artists such as Édouard Manet, Mary ­Cassatt, Berthe ­Morisot, Camille ­Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, James-Jacques Tissot, John Singer ­Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Max ­Liebermann, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Emil Nolde. In doing so, it spans a period in history that witnessed the birth of modern art.

Spanning Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Expressionism and the birth of abstraction, the exhibition considers its paintings not just in the context of different movements in art history but also in the light of each artist’s diaries and letters, which offers revealing insights into the importance and meaning of their garden paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir is shown to have painted roses to improve his rendering of human flesh tones. Van Gogh studied flowers to better understand colour theory, while ­Nolde and Klee painted gardens, both real and imaginary, in search of an authentic ­spirituality.

The pioneering German ­Expressionist Nolde started painting flowers early in his career, and planted gardens wherever he could. In vivid flower paintings, such as ­Flower Garden (O), from 1922, he depicted the transient beauty of full-blown blooms in vivid, uncompromising colour. "The colours of the flowers attracted me irresistibly and at once I was painting," he wrote.

Understandably, Monet's work dominates the show – a quarter of the paintings on display belong to the French Impressionist. Among the highlights is his 42-foot-long Agapanthus Triptych (1916-1919), the three parts of which are normally displayed at different ­American institutions, but will now been seen together for the first time by a British ­audience.

“Monet is the artist-gardener par excellence,” says Dumas. “No other artist was as serious a gardener or as knowledgeable.”