Impressionist Gardens collects flora and fauna work by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Manet
Neil Cooper talks to the curator of Impressionist Gardens, a major exhibition of international works, and the first ever to be devoted to the subject
The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie comes in many forms. For the suburbanites of the impressionist movement, inspiration lay not so much on their own front door, but among the vivid hues between the leaves of their back gardens. As befits the woozy transition from summer to autumn, the National Gallery of Scotland moves indoors with a major exhibition of almost 100 works depicting all manner of flora and fauna captured by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and other outdoor types who today might well look to well-seasoned and equally bourgeois World Cup barbecues for comfort rather than Mother Nature’s leafy Mediterranean climate. The 19th century result of such idyllic living, however, was what Pissarro dubbed an art ‘based on sensations’.
‘The Impressionists were quite bourgeois in their living conditions,’ points out Michael Clarke, director of the National Gallery of Scotland, and co-curator of Impressionist Gardens. ‘On the whole they lived in little houses with their families and gardens on the edge of cities in France where they had a mix of town and country. They said they wanted to find real life, and where better to find it than in their immediate surroundings.’
Clarke has previously curated several other impressionist shows, while his co-curator Claire Willsdon, reader in History of Art at Glasgow University, is a world-renowned expert on the subject who first proposed Impressionist Gardens to Clarke some four years ago. It has taken that long to gather works from major collections across the world.
‘It’s the first time that an exhibition has looked at the whole output of the impressionists in depth,’ says Clarke, ‘and Claire was very keen as well to feature some of the impressionists’ contemporaries, and to look at the spread of impressionism right across Europe.’
Homes and gardens, of course, can be artworks in their own right, as Monet observed when he suggested that the boundaries between gardening and painting would blur immeasurably. Monet even went as far as to put his green fingers where his brushes had been by claiming his own garden in Giverny as his ‘most beautiful work of art’.
In this spirit, the National Gallery of Scotland is collaborating with Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens on as series of events designed to shed even more light on the plants and seeds depicted in Impressionist Gardens, but with the added fragrance of the real thing to lend a sensurround appeal that the gallery walls could never capture.
‘There’ll be lots of information on some of the plants that are in the paintings,’ says Clarke, ‘so you get a real sense of the sorts of things the Impressionists were living with.’
Lest the eye-popping spectrum of colour dazzle a tad too much outside of an ‘au naturel’ environment, the walls themselves on the National Gallery’s top floor are being painted in complementary pastel shades.
‘However you look at it,’ says Clarke, ‘it’s going to be a ravishingly beautiful riot of colour.’
Impressionist Gardens, Royal Scottish Academy Building, National Galleries Complex, Edinburgh, Sat 31 Jul–Sun 17 Oct.