As artists like Georges Seurat and Claude Monet were capturing the refinement of European gardens in quick brushstrokes, so did American Impressionists like Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase turn to the cultivated landscapes around them for inspiration. Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx is a dual exhibition, with around 20 paintings in a gallery, and a physical garden inspired by these late 1800s botanical muses.
Last summer, NYBG featured a pyramid in red, blue, and yellow covered with cacti, succulents, and perennials in terra-cotta pots to represent the Casa Azul garden of Frida Kahlo. A 2010 installation was influenced by Emily Dickinson’s gardens, and a 2012 display was a celebration of Monet. All of these horticultural exhibitions were designed by Francisca Coelho, the NYBG’s Vivian and Edward Merrin vice president for glasshouses and exhibitions, with this year’s guest curation by Linda S. Ferber, senior art historian and museum director emerita of The New-York Historical Society.
You will not find any Monet waterlilies floating in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory for American Gardens on Canvas, as it’s very much an exploration of the Northeastern “grandmother garden” which crawled around the cottages in Maine, New York, and Connecticut favored for 19th-century artist retreats. The American Impressionists were painting, and often cultivating, a distinct style of garden that was brimming with flowers in all colors, where blooms would appear no matter the season between the picket fences and wooden beds. The NYBG conservatory exhibition is more a tribute than a recreation, as flowers from various seasons were grown to bloom at once to showcase “signature flowers” of the Impressionists.
Larkspurs with towering blue-violet spikes rise near snapdragons and tickseed with its golden daisy-like blooms. There are floss flowers with purple bursts, and dianthus with serrated petals in different hues. In the July heat, some of the flowers seemed a bit tired, but walking through the corridor between the plantings you can still get some of that blurred color effect. NYBG is also offering an “Impressify” GIF app online to easily mutate your photographs into swirls of color.
Other elements, such as the trellises with climbing morning glories, were inspired by the home of artist and writer Celia Thaxter, who maintained a glorious garden on Appledore Island in Maine, which was visited and painted by fellow artists like Hassam. There are roses as a nod to Maria Oakey Dewing, whose detailed painting of the thorny blooms stands out amid the softened textures in the other paintings. At the center of the conservatory is a cottage where you can relax in a rocking chair on the porch and look over the abundant plants. It’s almost like being in a 19th-century Long Island cottage, aside from the glass dome above your head.
It’s refreshing to see some women featured among the artists, which include Chase, Hugh Henry Breckinridge, Edmund William Greacen, John Singer Sargent, and John H. Twachtman, their canvases installed in a small show at the NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library. While the artists have distinct styles, each practiced some form of plein-air painting in an outdoor studio, enabled by the newly portable paint tubes and their innovative synthetic colors, to quickly immortalize an idealized and ephemeral scene of American nature.
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas continues at the New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Boulevard, The Bronx) through September 11.