THE CONSTANT GARDENER

Botanical celebrates Monet’s floral works

By Georgette Gouveia

He was, of course, best known for those dappled canvases – shards of color reflecting the play of light on land and water – that gave birth to a movement that remains one of the most popular in the history of art.

But Claude Monet “really was as brilliant a gardener as he was a painter,” says Todd Forrest, the Arthur Ross vice president for horticulture and living collections at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. “He said he owed his paintings to his flower gardens. There he experimented with colors. It’s impossible to separate Claude Monet the painter from Claude Monet the gardener.”

So instead The Botanical Garden is celebrating the fusion of the natural and the artistic in “Monet’s Garden” (through Oct. 21), which considers the Impressionist luminary (1840-1926) in painting, poetry, music, photography, landscape architecture, food and plenty of flora.

Flowers are the centerpiece. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, The Botanical Garden’s Victorian glasshouse, has been transformed into an evocation of the artist’s beloved vine-draped pink stucco home at Giverny, France, where he lived with his second wife, the former Alice Hoschedé, and their eight children.

“He and his family did all of the gardening,” says Forrest, who describes Monet as “an incredibly adventurous plantsman. In the Clos Normand, or Norman Enclosure, a preexisting walled vegetable garden, he took the bones and created one of the most effusive gardens anywhere” – one filled with irises, narcissi, tulips, roses, dahlias, sunflowers, gladioli and scented geraniums to mirror the shifting seasons.

“If it were colorful and created an impact, he grew it,” Forrest says.

The Botanical Garden re-creates the Grand Allée from the Clos Normand, including a path of green, rose-covered arches lined by flower beds. The Conservatory also features a Japanese footbridge decked in mauve and white Asian wisteria extending over a picturesque pool encircled by willows, bamboos and flowering shrubs. The bridge will be familiar to anyone who knows Monet’s “Nymphéas” series of water-lily paintings. The actual water lilies will be in the Conservatory’s Courtyard Pools, beginning in July.

Monet’s paintings of the delicate aquatic flowers were born of two events that took place in 1889-90 Paris. First, water-lily pioneer Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac visited the World’s Fair there, spurring Monet to buy some of the plants from Latour-Marliac’s nursery. Then the exhibit of Japanese woodblock ukiyo-e prints – the so-called “pictures of the floating world,” depicting fleeting earthly pleasures – fired the imaginations of Monet, fellow Impressionist Mary Cassatt and Post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh. They began incorporating not only Japanese imagery into their works, but the use of flat blocks of color.

For Monet in particular, art fed the garden and the garden fed his art.

“Monet’s Garden” is yet another example of how The Botanical Garden takes an interdisciplinary approach to subjects that have ranged from Charles Darwin to Emily Dickinson. Last year, The Garden brought Andalusia to the Bronx with an evocation of the Alhambra that embraced savory tapas, the sinuous flamenco and the sensual poetry of Federico García Lorca.

Monet, too, is getting the multifaceted treatment. There will be a Poetry Walk perfumed by the words of Monet’s Symbolist contemporaries, including Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Verlaine; concerts of works by Debussy, Fauré and Roussel; documentaries on Impressionism and the relationship of Monet’s art to food; a historical exhibit on Giverny in the Rondina Gallery that will include two rare Monet paintings; and a show of photographs in the Ross Gallery by Elizabeth Murray, who helped restore Monet’s estate.

The Botanical Garden has also collaborated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan on an app that will enable users to call up Monet paintings at The Met and learn more about the flowers in them as they’re viewing the flora.

“What we’ve learned in doing these large exhibitions,” Forrest says, “is that we can tell really interesting stories not just about the beauty of plants but about how they fit into the larger culture.”

For more, visit nybg.org or call (718) 817-8700.

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