artists & participants


press release

Impressionist Gardens is an exceptionally wide-ranging and comprehensive survey of the subject of the garden in painting, from the mid-19th century to the early years of the 20th century. The exhibition is organised by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Fundación Caja Madrid in collaboration with the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. It is curated by Clare Willsdon, Reader in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow, Michael Clarke, Director of the National Gallery of Scotland, and Guillermo Solana, Chief Curator of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

In the mid-19th century the introduction and hybridization of hundreds of plants and species of exotic flowers from Asia, Africa and South America, in addition to the opening to the public of the royal parks, resulted in a wave of horticultural enthusiasm in France and other European countries. Designing and cultivating gardens became a passion to which the Impressionist painters, including Monet and Caillebotte, were not immune.

The exhibition opens in the galleries of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza with a section devoted to the forerunners of the Impressionist garden. Examples of Romantic-era flower painting (represented by Delacroix) are juxtaposed with depictions of flowers by Bazille and Renoir. In contrast to these “interior gardens”, the painters of the Barbizon turned to the outdoors and explored the garden as landscape. Artists such as Millet, Corot and Daubigny were the immediate predecessors of French Impressionist painting.

The Impressionists’ approach to the garden can be characterized through three pairs of opposing concepts: city and countryside, public park and private garden, and decorative and functional.

The garden thus appears as the meeting point between the urban and rural worlds, either as an oasis of nature among the city streets or as a fragment of civilised order in the midst of the countryside. Just as the Barbizon painters had depicted country gardens, in the parks of the French capital Manet and the Impressionists discovered the combined attractions of modern life and the outdoors.

The second pairing is that of large, public parks (such as the Parc Monceau, the Bois de Boulogne and the Trocadero) and small, private gardens that were often created by artists. Monet, Pissarro, Morisot and Sargent presented the parks of Paris and other cities as the settings for a type of ebullient social life in which the different social classes co-existed and amused themselves. With the private garden, the same artists depicted an intimate, personal world involving conversation, reading, rest and play.

The third pairing is that of the decorative garden (a place of leisure) and the productive garden (a place of work). The last two rooms at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza analyse Pissarro’s interest in the subject of the kitchen or vegetable garden, which he depicted with a particular focus on the figure of the peasant at work, in line with his own political convictions. Some of the artists who absorbed his lessons or were influenced by his work are also represented here, including Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

The exhibition continues at Fundación Caja Madrid. The central hall is devoted to the evolution of the subject of gardens in the late work of the French Impressionists, with canvases by Monet, Pissarro and Caillebotte, as well as others by the new generation of Post-impressionist painters (including Van Gogh, Klimt, Vuillard, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec).

Upstairs, the exhibition focuses on European and North American naturalist painting of the turn of the century, with a wide range of examples by the German, Scandinavian, British and American painters who were influenced by Impressionism’s interest in effects of light and outdoor atmosphere. A comparable interest is to be found in Spanish painting of this period, evident in the work of painters such as Sorolla, Regoyos, Pla, Meifrèn and Anglada-Camarasa, shown in a separate gallery.

The last room looks at the transformation of the garden in the transition from Post-impressionism to the early 20th-century avant-garde movements such as Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism. On display are works by Cézanne, Munch, Nolde, Dufy, Braque, Malevich and Ernst.