This heat has gotten to your intrepid blogger, so with some friends I headed up to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx to see the current exhibit, Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, a small but well-curated exhibit of paintings by American Impressionist artists active at the turn of the twentieth century. Influenced by their French counterparts, the work of the Americans shares many of the same characteristics; an emphasis on the overall composition; capturing the ephemeral quality of light; thick, rapid brushstrokes and scant attention to detail. Outdoor subjects were particularly well suited for this impressionistic style.
The exhibit, in the Mertz Library, is divided into about half a dozen sections, each with 3 to 5 paintings, by both noted artists as such as Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, as well as lesser-known painters like Maria Oakey Dewing and David Putnam Brinley.
As cities became more crowded, dirty and industrialized, the late 1800’s saw the rise of the urban beautification movement, with the construction of large rambling parks such as Central Park and Prospect Park (both by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), built to provide green lungs for city dwellers who couldn’t escape to large private estates far outside the city such as those owned by John Rockefeller (Pocantico) and James Deering (Vizcaya) – take a look at John Singer Sargent’s watercolors of the fountains on their grounds. In the suburbs and cities, homeowners with land began employing a a simplified domestic garden style inspired by the informal dooryard gardens of the colonial era. Plantings would change with the season; depending on the time of year, you’d find crocuses, daffodils, pansies, violets, poppies, hollyhocks, roses, sweet peas, morning glories or sunflowers. I lingered over Maria Oakey Dewing’s Rose Garden, a 1901 oil which hearkens back to the Old Master’s in its realism and technique.
During this period, artists colonies started becoming popular, not only as places to work without the distractions of the metropolis, but also as retreats where artists could meet each other to exchange ideas and gossip. Two were especially noteworthy: in Old Lyme, Connecticut, Florence Griswold operated a boarding house at her home that became known as the “American Giverny,” while on Maine’s Appledore Island, many artists stayed at the hotel owned by the family of writer Celia Thaxter – her home on the Island was noted for it’s garden as well as for the salon she hosted. Two of my favorite pieces in the show were painted there, both by Childe Hassam: Celia Thaxter’s Garden 1890, with it’s view of the sea from the garden; and Summer Sea, Isles of Shoals, a1902 oil depicting the coast line at Appledore Island, with an especially brilliant blue sea.
Because this is a small exhibit, you’ll have the luxury of being able to take the time to look at all the works closely – they’re all lovely.
After the show, you might want to take a leisurely stroll over to the Conservatory, where you’ll find an interpretation of Celia Thaxter’s old-fashioned, cottage-style garden, evocative of the smaller gardens often depicted by the American Impressionists.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, I can recommend Hudson Garden Grill, close by on the Garden’s grounds, which serves a tasty lunch in a delightful setting.
Two last things: before you go, read the on-line exhibition guide which will give you a good overview of what you’ll see. And try Impressify, the Garden’s on-line tool that allows you to upload a photo and transform it into an impressionist painting either as a still image or a moving one (GIF). It’s a lot of fun! You can see my transformed daisies on the left.
The exhibit runs through September 11.