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Imagining the Garden

The garden is a ground plot for the mind. —Thomas Hill, The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577)
August 10, 2016
Views of the Villa of Pratolino: Colossal Statue of the Apennines

Heather Lemonedes Curator of Drawings

Views of the Villa of Pratolino: Colossal Statue of the Apennines about 1650-–55. Stefano della Bella (Italian, 1610–1664). Etching; 26 x 40.1 cm. John L. Severance Fund 1988.110.4 


Throughout the centuries, artists have made exquisite renderings of the garden. In a selection of nearly 60 drawings, prints, illuminated manuscripts, Indian miniatures, textiles, and decorative arts from the museum’s collection, Imagining the Garden transports viewers to cloister gardens of the Middle Ages, Persian love gardens, formal gardens of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque France, the Impressionists’ backyard idylls, and fantastical oases that exist only in the imagination. The exhibition culminates with contemporary artist Jim Hodges’s In Blue (1996), a scrim of artificial blossoms that cascades from ceiling to floor, immersing the viewer in a floriferous environment. Organized to complement the international loan exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse currently on view in the museum’s main exhibition space, Imagining the Garden offers visitors an expanded vision of artistic conceptualizations of the garden, showing that the marriage of horticulture and the visual arts has produced a dazzling variety of gardens, perennial reminders of the power of imagination.

While the appeal of gardens remains constant, their portrayal varies dramatically depending on the era, cultural associations, and the artist’s chosen medium. Drawing from the museum’s encyclopedic collection, Imagining the Garden juxtaposes works of art from a broad range of cultures and periods, revealing contrasts and surprising similarities in artists’ approaches to the theme of the garden. The exhibition begins with four representations of the Garden of Eden: a medieval illumination from a book of hours in which the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil shelters a serpent with the head of a woman; a French engraving from the late 16th century in which Eve offers the fateful fruit to Adam; a minutely detailed Flemish drawing from the early 17th century that portrays Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, a virtual microcosm populated by a dizzying array of plants and animals; and a wood engraving by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones showing Adam and Eve in the wilderness after being expelled from Paradise. Other works on paper by Italian, Dutch, and Indian artists from the 15th through the 18th centuries explore crucial moments in the life of Christ that take place in gardens.


A Princess Standing in a Garden Landscape

A Princess Standing in a Garden Landscape 1550–1600. India, Deccan. Opaque watercolor with gold; 17.5 x 12.7 cm. Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund

From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection IR-2013-007592/1


The garden can be a place for romance, where the senses are heightened, colors more vibrant, scents stronger, the environment richer than ordinary surroundings. The “garden of love” was a powerful and enduring metaphor that appeared in the visual arts of Europe around the ninth century and reached a peak of popularity in the 1400s. Two German engravings from the 15th century that refer to the love garden as an idyllic place where harmony reigned are shown alongside a pair of Indian miniatures from the 18th century in which the garden provides an ideal setting for courtship and amorous play.

Gardens also can serve as sanctuaries for reverie and contemplation. In his poem “The Garden” (1681), Andrew Marvell described his absorption in the botanical as finding the world reduced to “a green thought in a green shade,” a sentiment matched by a wide spectrum of artists—Indian painters of the Deccan and Mughal periods, expatriate John Singer Sargent, French Symbolist Odilon Redon, American Impressionist Childe Hassam, and Japanese Rimpa artist Kamisaka Sekka—who portrayed solitary figures in gardens, their reveries bringing them closer to a transcendent state of being.


Scene in a Park

Scene in a Park about 1760–62. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806). Pen and brown and gray ink, brush and brown and gray wash, and traces of yellow watercolor over black chalk; 19.2 x 25 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund 1925.1006


While representations of the garden during the Middle Ages were infused with allegorical meaning and intense spirituality, depictions of Medici gardens at the Villa of Pratolino and the Villa d’Este, and French palace gardens at Versailles and Nancy, were manifestations of courtly wealth and power. Eighteenth-century renderings of gardens differed dramatically from those of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Louis XIV’s death in 1715 left France in desperate financial straits that in part resulted from his megalomaniacal garden-building campaign at Versailles. In a period of severe economic decline, the extravagant horticultural displays of the past were no longer possible or even desirable. Instead of forcefully exerting human design upon the natural world, garden designers and artists of the 18th century found solace in a bucolic dream of escape from the anxieties and demands of courtly life. The cult of nature and nostalgic desire to seek solace in unspoiled idylls paved the way for Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s drawings of overgrown gardens, magnificent in their unbridled abundance.


Strawberry Thief

Strawberry Thief 1883 (printed about 1936). William Morris, designer (British, 1834–1896). Cotton, plain weave, discharge printed, loom width; 88.3 x 99.1 cm. Gift of Mrs. Henry Chisholm 1937.696


In the 19th century, industrialization and the rising middle class inspired a new kind of garden iconography. For the first time, gardens were no longer the domain of the elite. Domestic backyard gardens were a beloved subject of modern American and European artists, and with decorative objects and textiles adorned with natural motifs—such as William Morris’s Strawberry Thief —the garden lived indoors throughout the year.

Gardens provide inspiration not only to artists. Again and again, poets, novelists, and essayists have described particular gardens, using them as settings and engaging with them metaphorically or to express emotion. Twelve literary excerpts accompany a dozen works of art on view in Imagining the Garden. Each passage is about a garden, or rather the idea of what a garden can be and the many emotions a garden can occasion. The majority of authors included were not gardeners (although a few were, such as Sir George Sitwell, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Vita Sackville-West), but all reveal a sensitivity to the various moods evoked by gardens. That writers as divergent as Murasaki Shikibu, Christopher Marlowe, and Edith Wharton all brought gardens into their writing says something about how gardens have been a part of the lives of so many people, across expanses of time and geography. Poems and selected passages from novels and essays are available on gallery cards and are read aloud on the museum’s ArtLens app. 


The Expulsion from Paradise

The Expulsion from Paradise about 1606. Jan Wierix (Flemish, about 1549–after 1615). Pen and brown ink; 9.5 x 12.4 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund 1994.16 


Cleveland Art, November/December 2015