Painting the Modern Garden – The Royal Academy


Painting the Modern Garden
Monet to Matisse – The Royal Academy

Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy

Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy

After a couple of hours in Tate Britain at the Frank Auerbach exhibition and stomping by foot all the way over to The Royal Academy, I have to admit my feet, legs and eyes were somewhat fried! However, when in London I have to make the most of it.

My heart fell when I walked through the doors – it was packed full and trying to get to the paintings was a bit of a scrum! I’m usually so behind with these things that the initial furore is normally over – as per the Frank Auerbach. The first display was mainly Monet and I made a tactical decision to plough on as I had seen many of his garden paintings at another exhibition (Monet’s Garden – Kunsthaus, Zurich). This turned out to be a smart move, most people seemed only interested in Monet.

I was quite surprised at the number and variety of artists included here – gardening and gardens are obviously a favourite of painters.  Especially the impressionists seemed to see it as another way of painting with plants but not exclusively.

There were paintings by many artists I have researched and discovered through the Practice of Painting Course, although they were more known for other subjects, such as:

  • Pierre Bonnard – researched as part of the still life section. Having said that there were still elements of still life in a few paintings, particularly the tea-table. He always seems to achieve a serene and narrative image.
  • Edvard Munch – Jealously in the Garden showing figures in a narrative, although the main character does have the haunting look reminiscent of The Scream, also shown was Apple Tree in the Garden which is a more mellow theme with some vibrant colour.
  • Paul Cezanne – The Pond at the Jas de Bouffan had a different feel to a lot of his paintings, it seemed more solid somehow.
  • Raoul Dufy – I had been aware of his seaside views through hotel windows and doors, here I particularly liked The Little Palm Tree which was a charming painting full of atmosphere and light. In contrast was his The Abandoned Garden which was quite dark in mood and colour with strong directional marks making up solid objects and the sky.
  • Emil Nolde – I was so excited to discover several of his paintings as I had only seen his work on-line when researching Abstract Expressionists. These were expressive, however, I wouldn’t call them abstract. The colours were as vibrant and striking as I’d previously seen. I don’t think there was one I didn’t like but, in particular I was drawn to Red Flowers, Flower Garden and Peonies and Irises.
  • Wassily Kandinsky – More abstract expressionism with Marnau Garden I & II. These were more as I expected although they were discernible as gardens.

John Singer Sargent featured well, one of my favourite representational artists. Two of my favourites were oil studies in the garden – Garden Study with Lucia and Kate Millet and Garden Study of the Vickers Children.

Some paintings that I really enjoyed were by artists I wasn’t familiar with prior to the exhibition:

  • Joaquin Sorolla – several paintings were by this artist although I particularly liked the serene mood and dappled light of Garden of the Sorolla House.
  • Henri Le Sidaner – the paintings by this artist were quite different in style and had a soft-focus effect that invoked an ethereal mood. The style worked beautifully in the soft light of a snowy garden with the gentle glow of lights from the cottage windows of the painting The Steps, Gerberoy. Interestingly, where this was rendered in pastel, a very similar effect was created in the oil painting The Table in the White Garden, Gerberoy.
  • Santiago Rusinol – this artist’s paintings warranted a room of their own with subdued lighting. Whereas these were very realistic and skilfully draughted images, they were stunning in their light effects. The handling of light and dark made the sunlight out of the shadows glow with warmth, using bright hot colours in contrast to the cooler, shadowy areas took my breath away. Glorieta VII, Aranjuez and Gardens of Montforte are two to note.

There were so many more painters represented here that I would be re-writing the catalogue to mention – I wholeheartedly recommend this exhibition as there really is something for everybody.

Obviously, Monet featured large in the exhibition and it was not my intention to dismiss his importance or brilliance in the beginning of this report. However, I have to say I am, nowadays, drawn to his later, more expressive works such as the Weeping Willow, Nympheas, Japanese Bridge 1918-26 and The Japanese Bridge 1923-25. These brilliant colours, atmosphere and brush marks radiate off of the canvas and captured my attention for some time, they evoked a strong emotional reaction that I am glad was covered by the low lighting! Of course, we had to end with one of the epic Water Lilly paintings taking up an entire wall – Monet deserved to have the last word!

Research Points: Interiors


Research the work of the Dutch Realist genre painters and choose two or three paintings that particularly appeal to you. Look at the devices employed to draw the viewer into the experience of the occupants of the room.

Johannes Vemeer (1632-1675)

A fairly obvious choice for looking at interiors, Vermeer was famous for his scenes of 17th Century domestic life.

The Music Lesson by Johaness Vemeer. The Royal Collection at St James' Palace

The Music Lesson by Johannes Vemeer.
The Royal Collection at St James’ Palace


Vemeer has used perspective to show depth and space in the room. His subjects appear to be unaware of his gaze and the interior itself is almost as important. The light from the window illuminates the figures and elevates them as the focal point, as does the tiled floor guiding the eye towards them. Adding in the table with its detailed cloth and jug, chair and cello gives a narrative to what could have been a static pose.





Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684)

A contemporary of Vemeer, de Hooch is not so familiar to me.  However, he also was known for painting interiors, with the specific device of looking through an open door.

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch The Royal Collection, Windsor

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch
The Royal Collection, Windsor


This painting is a realistic looking scene of a group of card players.  The light is expertly and convincingly painted from the outside to in, the sheen on the door and the cast sunlight coming in through the door on to the floor points to the room’s occupants. Again the chequered tiles draw the eye to them and also on out to the courtyard, introducing the advancing figure to the story. The offset placement of the key figures give it a realistic composition, with one figure standing adding to the scale of the room and its contents. The more I look at this the more I like it. Its colours are fairly neutral but for the few flashes of red to lift its impact.



Look at interiors that have been painted by various artists from different periods. Look especially at how illusions of space have been created, how doorways and windows form a part of the composition and how furniture and objects are depicted either as a central focus for the painting or as secondary to any human drama.

Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) by David Hockney (b 1937)

This painting is a portrait of the artist’s friends, however, it says so much more. It is well documented that the sitters were not getting along too well at the time and the placement of the figures in their setting does give the impression of division. The open door not only creates a barrier but seems to be offering a means of escape – if only for Percy the cat! Placing the figures against the light of the open door does not throw them into the spotlight but seems to make them become part of the interior being contre jour.



Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (1885) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Sargent has given a sense of space through open doors in this painting and then taken it away again by adding the gloom of the hallway and the seemingly unobtainable exit by the front door. The direction of the floor boards lead away into the dark, foreboding, hallway.  I always forget that this image includes Stevenson’s wife as she blends into the interior so well I think she’s part of the furniture – she almost appears to be hiding! The rug on the floor is horizontal and Stevenson is pacing (I imagine) back and forth deep in thought and has been caught mid ponder.

John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery


John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends

A trip was organised by my local art society to view a completely different exhibition, however, it coincided with John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. There were several exhibitions on in London that I wanted to see at the same time, however, I only managed two because of both time and viewing energy limitations.

This was a beautiful exhibition – not particularly thought-provoking, political or shocking but most definitely beautiful – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! As my friend and I are also students at a local portrait class, this was absolutely relevant and instructional.  All exhibits were wonderfully painted, with skilful use of colour and light – most were solid representations of the sitter yet had a delicacy of flesh and fabric that seemed almost contradictory in one painting. I was absolutely awestruck by the personality oozing out of every portrait. A lesson I had learnt from the Drawing 1 course when attempting a self-portrait, whereby my friends and family could recognise my drawing as me, but not the persona portrayed – a successful portrait is not just getting the eyes, nose and mouth in the right place, (although obviously a good start) but seeing into the life and soul of the sitter as the artist feels they are. This, I think, is Sargent’s “talent”/skill.  It is said that he became frustrated and resentful of formal, commissioned portraiture and changed to landscapes and more narrative work that included figures yes, but not specific portraits.  These paintings and drawings exhibited here were of like-minded artists and close friends, and it is obvious that he held these people in high regard. I, myself, find I can achieve more of a likeness if I feel connected or actually like the sitter before me – although I have a long and bumpy road ahead of me before I can achieve a fragment of the skill I saw here.

My favourites? Well I think they change by the minute, however the paintings that caught my attention most in real life, rather than the reproductions in the book, were of:

  • Vernon Lee 1881 (Violet Paget), this was not a flamboyant or overly colourful portrait of his childhood friend but it was kindly, soft and gentle – he showed the private personality of an intellectual, strong-minded woman.  The rendering of the glasses with minimal brush strokes was a lesson in itself.
  • Madame Allouard-Jouan 1882, a stunningly beautiful (that word again) portrait that concentrated on the face. A simple tonal background, black high-necked dress and bonnet with black curls around the face draw the eyes to delicate, yet strong features. The eyes are simply painted, almost hinted at, yet still enigmatic.
  • Fete familiale c1885, this has a very different feel to many of the other paintings in the exhibition. It shows a mother and father at their son’s birthday tea-table. I found it interesting that the father’s face (The French artist Albert Besnard (1849-1934), was barely represented, he was placed at the back of the scene, almost in the shadows, and quite anonymous, whereas his wife and child were sat at the table and had the lamp light reflecting in their faces with the glow of the occasion around them. This made me feel the influence of the etiquette of the day, where I imagine the father to be absent from most family frivolities and was mainly a figure of discipline and bread-winning.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson 1885, there were two paintings of RLS, one with his wife and one solo. They were both painted at his Bournemouth home which, being fairly local to where I have previously lived, also attracted me.  I was particularly drawn to the solitary portrait of Stevenson where he lounged in a chair with his feet deep in a long piled carpet or rug. The pose, Stevenson’s droopy moustache, his neutral and nondescript clothes, the shag pile rug and the loose painterly style, made it look very modern – more 1970s than 1880s. It did remind me of David Hockney’s portrait of Ossy Clark cropped of Percy and wife!
  • Henry James 1913, this does look fairly formal in style of pose. However, they were close friends and James supported the artist’s work consistently. In the “flesh”, this portrait was very attention grabbing – the author is shown as formidable and imposing, again the focus is on the face and the viewer feels appraised rather than the other way around. The brushwork on the waistcoat and watch chain gives these substance and form, I was, however, particularly taken with the treatment of the hand – very convincing and solid.
  • Alberto Falchetti 1905, Italian painter. In reproduction, this painting comes over as a little disappointing, purely because having seen the actual work, the difference is quite astounding.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from that smouldering gaze – the personality, maybe arrogance and intensity were hypnotic – had this man been a modern-day actor, he would definitely been cast as Captain Poldark!

I would have loved to have bought the accompanying catalogue, however, funds would not allow – I did treat myself to a smaller book John Singer Sargent – Painting Friends, ISBN 978-185514-550-4, published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications Ltd.  This, although not including all the images exhibited, does have a good many, is easy to read and will be reviewed under Books in my blog.