New CMA Exhibition Showcases Impressionists' Innovative Perceptions of Gardens

The latest special exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) opens this Sunday, Oct. 11. Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse uses Monet and the Impressionists as a starting point to explore the role the garden as a multifaceted theme in modern art. The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the CMA and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and Cleveland is the exhibition’s only U.S. destination.

A centerpiece of the exhibition is the reuniting of Monet’s legendary Water Lilies (Agapanthus) triptych depicting the artist’s water garden at Giverny. The CMA owns one, but the other two are on loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Saint Louis Art Museum. “Gardening was something I learned in my youth when I was unhappy,” Monet once said. “I perhaps owe it to flowers that I became a painter.”

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is organized into six sections, contextualizing the garden as a multifaceted, universal theme in modern art. The exhibition utilizes more than 100 paintings by masters such as Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Vincent van Gogh and many more.

“Many of Monet’s colleagues shared his passion for gardening and were inspired to paint gardens as emblematic of the pursuit of modern, middle-class leisure,” explains William H. Robinson, co-curator of the exhibition and curator of modern European art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “They were among the first artists to portray gardens observed directly from life, disconnected from historical, religious or literary themes. As the century drew to a close, Post-Impressionists and Symbolists embraced more subjective approaches by imagining gardens as visionary utopias; many turned to painting gardens to explore abstract color theory and decorative design.”

Through the context of these artists’ own diaries and letters, their words reveal crucial yet generally unrecognized insights into the importance and meaning of the garden paintings. “Renoir painted roses to improve his rendering of flesh tones," as the organizers write. "Van Gogh studied flowers to better understand color theory, and painted imaginary gardens filled with symbolic allusions. Emil Nolde and Paul Klee painted gardens, both real and imaginary, as part of their search for an authentic spirituality.”

The exhibition’s extensive collection of paintings and documentary materials have been borrowed from nearly 20 private collections and more than 40 museums, foundations and cultural institutions, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, the Lenbachhaus in Munich, the Nolde Stiftung in Seebüll, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía and the Museo Sorolla in Madrid, the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Museet Munch in Oslo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, MOMA in New York and more.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Royal Academy Publications has created a lengthy scholarly catalogue, including 250 illustrations and essays by Ann Dumas, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, Heather Lemonedes; curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, William H. Robinson; Clare A. P. Willsdon of Glasgow University, a noted historian of nineteenth-century garden paintings; as well as an interview by Monty Don with James Priest, current head gardener at Giverny.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has also organized a number of special events in support of the exhibition. November’s MIX: Bloom happy hour will include elaborate floral designs inspired by the works on view (Admission to Painting the Modern Garden is free with your MIX: Bloom ticket). MIX: Bloom takes place from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6.
Additionally, the CMA will present five classic films about gardens and gardening: The Secret Garden (1949, Saturday, Dec. 26), Greenfingers (2000, Sunday Dec. 27), The Draughtsman’s Daughter (1982, Tuesday, Dec. 29), A Man Named Pearl (2006, Wednesday, Dec. 30) and The Secret Garden (1993, Thursday, Dec. 31). All films begin at 1:30 p.m., and tickets are $10 general admission; $8 for CMA members, seniors (65 and older) and students (with ID). No vouchers or passes will be accepted.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse has been co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Cleveland venue of the exhibition is generously supported by Baker Hostetler, the Michelle and Richard Jeschelnig Exhibitions & Special Projects Fund, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the Ohio Arts Council and the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse will remain on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through Jan. 5, 2016. Next year, the exhibition moves to London’s Royal Academy from Jan. 30 through Apr. 20.

While the museum’s permanent galleries are always free and open to the public, this special exhibition requires a separate ticket. Adults are $18, students and seniors are $16, kids (ages 6 to 17) are $9 and children under 5 are free.

(Cleveland Museum of Art) 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340,

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