When Claude Monet started painting corners of his garden at Giverny, in Normandy, and in particular the pictures of pools and waterlilies that came to define his last years, the First World War had just started. As he worked on those meditative and unruffled scenes he could hear the guns only 50 kilometres away: “If those savages must kill me,” he wrote, “it will be in the middle of my canvasses, in front of all my life’s work.” They didn’t get him — he lived until 1926 — but his garden pictures, the “Grandes Décorations” as he termed them, were for him both personal and patriotic.
Monet’s pictures of water, lilies and weeping willows — symbols of mourning — were made in defiance of the Germans, to remember the dead French soldiers and to allay his fears when his son Michel was called up. Immediately after the war he offered two of the waterlily paintings to the nation through his friend, the prime minister Georges Clémenceau, “to honour the victory and peace”. These great, immersive works, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and three others now in America (the Agapanthus Triptych), were the final fruit of Monet’s long love affair with the garden. In 1883, when he first moved to Giverny, he created the garden there specifically in order to give himself something to paint. He saw his demesne as being an equal participant rather than just a backdrop for humans in the informal scenes of Impressionism. In 1904 he stated: “Aside from painting and gardening I’m good for nothing.” Indeed he claimed he owed his painting “to flowers”.
Monet had a substantial botanical library, gave his gardener detailed instructions of what to plant and when, and imported waterlilies from Japan, but if he was the most thoroughgoing of the artist-gardeners of his era he was not the only one. Pierre Bonnard, not far from Giverny, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde and Max Liebermann in Germany were among other aficionados. The intertwining of the garden with avant-garde art is examined in Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy from January 30. The exhibition has gathered 120 works to show just how widespread was the fascination with horticulture, and includes pictures by, among others, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Sargent and Klimt.
What the collection highlights is something of the range of reasons that attracted the artists to the blooms. Monet’s 1864 Spring Flowers, for example, shows assorted cut species, from roses to hydrangeas, in a version of Dutch Golden Age still life painting. It is a picture of careful colour harmonies rather than of the fecundity and watery verdancy that later fascinated him. Kandinsky’s Murnau, The Garden II (1910), on the other hand, is an exercise in dynamism and clashing hues, while the paint in Nolde’s Flower Garden (O) (1922) is so thick in places that the petals are almost three dimensional.
The garden adapted itself to whichever style each painter practised. In the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla’s blithe 1911 portrait of a white-suited Louis Comfort Tiffany painting among heavy blooms, the garden is a well-mannered accessory. Klimt, however, saw flowers as pixels in a heavily worked whole where nature is all pattern and no single motif dominates. This exhibition is full of lovely pictures and it is hard not to see them simply in purely aesthetic terms. Each one though is also a record of how the garden offered not just what Nolde described as “calm and beautiful hours” but a technical challenge that could be, at times, the opposite of repose. Paintings, like gardens, may be a lovesome thing but it takes the hard work of painters and gardeners to make them so.
Beauty was the central concern too of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79). In 1864 she wrote that “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.” Primarily a portraitist (she took the definitive pictures of, for example, both Tennyson and Carlyle), she also made “fancy pictures”, posing her sitters in literary, historical, religious or picturesque mises-en-scène. She was at her best with grand men and young girls, believing that women shouldn’t be photographed between the ages of 18 and 80.
The V&A’s exhibition (until February 21)of more than 100 of her photographs celebrates the bicentenary of her birth and the 150th anniversary of her first exhibition at the museum and shows why she is regarded as so much more than a chronicler of eminent Victorians. She had been interested in the new art of photography even before her daughter and son-in-law gave her a camera at the age of 48: “I turned my coal-house into my dark room, and a glazed fowl-house I had given to my children became my glass house!” The prints that emerged were often deliberately out of focus and showed the blotches and smudges of the development process as well as fingerprints and intentional scratches — marks left to indicate the creativity of the enterprise, a photographer’s brushstrokes.
While some people criticised these imperfections the critic Coventry Patmore thought Cameron was “the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes”. It was an astute comment. Using huge 15 inch by 12 inch negatives she showed her sitters emerging from the dark, just as their images would gradually materialise in the darkroom. Her grave subjects — from Alice Liddell to her friend the shock-haired astronomer Sir John Herschel — have a more than documentary presence. These are not records of appearance but carefully wrought images intended to resonate: “It is the dull quiet surface of a photograph,” she wrote, “that constitutes I think the harmony of the work.”