Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
Here’s an idea for Londoners suffering from the winter blues. Why not go and see the Monet to Matisse exhibition of garden paintings at the Royal Academy? Sounds tedious and chocolate boxy? Stepping out of the cold to feast one’s eyes on impressionist and post impressionist art is a really uplifting to do at this time of year. Some of the gardens are so atmospheric you can almost smell the flowers and feel the sun on your skin. Is there anywhere lovelier than a French garden in high summer, seen through the eyes of Monet?
Last weekend I walked through Hyde Park to Piccadilly. It was bone-chillingly cold and there was a dismal grey haze over the Serpentine. The trees were bare and leafless and there was barely a flower in bloom apart from tiny clutches of mauve hellebores at the park’s southeastern tip. Everything – sky, trees, water – was grey, apart from the Lycra-clad runners streaking through the park.
I have never felt so glad to walk through the spacious galleries of the Royal Academy or expected to find such pleasure in gazing at Monet’s water lilies in all their dream-like beauty. I read in the FT that Monet employed seven gardeners at one point. One poor fellow spent his days going up and down in a little boat dusting the water lilies. I wonder if his job felt pointless or if he had a sense of Monet’s place in history.
There are several other painters exhibited there too, such as Henri Le Sidaner, who The Independent describes as ‘second tier’ and the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla who is similarly scorned (I’ve made a mental note to look up the Sorolla museum if ever I’m in Madrid.) Part of the pleasure of this exhibition is that many of the paintings, whether by Monet or his contemporaries, are from rarely seen private collections. It all feels fresh.
There’s a room near the end that shows black and white photos of many of the era’s great artists, all of them bearded and biblical-looking with seemingly devoted wives and beautiful, artily disheveled properties of the kind bankers might buy today. No doubt all the artists including Monet were under terrible financial strain but it looks wildly romantic.
Mr Wrong tells me that Monet’s house and garden in Giverny, 50 miles from Paris, where he lived until his death in 1926, are permanently overrun with coachloads of tourists. There’s a small illustrated booklet in a corner of the Royal Academy shop with great photos of both. The booklet wasn’t expensive and I’m annoyed I didn’t brave the queue to buy it.
The shadow of the First World War hangs over much of the exhibition, but I stepped back onto the streets of Piccadilly feeling sunlit and optimistic, and resolving to do something about my long-neglected roof terrace.
Might there be room for a lily pond?
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse runs until April 20. The exhibition is packed at weekends, especially around lunchtime, but if you’re a member you can just swan in, or join the RA on the spot and then swan in. Otherwise it’s probably wise to go first thing in the morning. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/painting-modern-garden-monet-matisse