A botanical legacy indeed

All of us here at WAG take a moment to wish our readers a happy holiday season.

And if you’re lucky enough to have some time off in coming days, we’re pleased to put the New York Botanical Garden in the spotlight as an ideal destination for a visit.

It was back in the October issue when we featured “Redouté to Warhol: Bunny Mellon’s Botanical Art,” an exhibition devoted to the legacy of Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon (1910-2014).

During her lifetime, the American philanthropist best remembered as a significant garden designer and art collector assembled an array of botanical artwork along with a library of more than 10,000 volumes on botanical subjects.

And the collection, housed in the Oak Spring Garden Library that Mellon founded on her estate in Upperville, Virginia, not only fueled her professional work but also served to reflect her personal interests in Oak Spring’s greenhouses and gardens.

As we were writing in advance of the show’s opening, we didn’t have a chance to see it back then but finally made it down there recently – and what a show it is.

Nearly 80 works from the collection – ranging from the 14th through 20th centuries with many never before exhibited publicly – is a virtual primer on botanical works of art.
Compact in scale but far-reaching in breadth, the show fills the Art Gallery of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library on the garden’s Bronx grounds in a most stylish manner.

A billowing banner beckoned us inside on that recent morning, with the show itself making a dramatic introduction with the rotunda entryway recreating the domed entry pavilion to Mellon’s own greenhouse, a space decorated with trompe l’oeil frescoes by French artist Fernand Renard.

From there, the gallery itself unfolds as we wander through botanical history. (It was a lovely surprise to learn that Mellon brought together her collection in 1981 in a new building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes that would become The Oak Spring Garden Library. WAG readers may remember our March 2015 feature on Barnes, when The Katonah Museum of Art offered an exhibition on the architect who called Westchester home for years).

The show itself is deceptively small; it’s easy to quickly glance around the gallery and feel you’ve seen it all – but be sure to spend time with the paintings, drawings and prints. And don’t skip past the decorative art objects, a particularly strong and unexpected element (those crystal vases in the style of Peter Carl Fabergé are something).

Of course, there are works by Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Andy Warhol, those name-checked in the show title, but there is so much more, from Pablo Picasso to Henri Rousseau, and from medieval engravings to a stunning selection by Jan van Kessel the Elder. These works by the 17th-century Dutch artist are arranged in a cabinet of curiosities fashion, an exhibition highlight.

That all on view was collected and preserved by Mellon is a testament to her vision, summed up in a comment she made to Vogue in 1965 and emblazoned on the gallery wall: “A garden, like a library, is a whole made up of separate interests and mysteries.”

After our visit, we agree.

The show, something worth exploring in depth, continues through Feb. 12. (And what’s a trip to the NYBG this time of year without visiting the Holiday Train Show? The perennial favorite in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory never fails to amaze, no matter the year, no matter the age of the visitor. Model trains make their way through a display featuring some 150 regional landmarks created out of natural materials including bark and leaves. The train show, now in its 25th year, continues through Jan. 16.)

For more, visit nybg.org.

– Mary Shustack

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