Reviewing an exhibition of J. Alden Weir’s work barely a month ago I wrote, “Of our major artists, Weir is one of the least likely to inspire impassioned tribute.” A happy exception to that statement is provided by The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920, an exhibition now installed at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. Therein hangs Weir’s Midday Rest in New England, a big pastiche that ought not to be as good as it is: the tree-punctuated skyline is a paraphrase of Monet’s poplar paintings, the yoked oxen appear to have been cut and pasted from a Barbizon landscape, and one of the resting figures may have been lifted from his friend Sargent’s Tyrolean idylls; the other is seen in static profile. Somehow, Weir managed to combine too many moving parts in a zig-zag composition and pull off a painting that, if not entirely cohesive, possesses both the grandeur of a mural and atmospheric beauty.
Conceived at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, whose collection forms the core of the show, The Artist’s Garden traveled to several venues prior to making its final appearance in Old Lyme. It’s divided into various sections: American Artists, European Gardens; The Lady in the Garden; The Garden in Winter; The Urban Garden, etc. But a lot of the works at the Florence Griswold can claim only the most tenuous connection to the American garden movement of a hundred years ago. Weir’s canvas, for my money the show’s centerpiece, depicts an agrarian theme rather than the patrician and leisurely subject the show’s title evokes. One is harder-pressed to rationalize the inclusion of Childe Hassam’s The Hovel and the Skyscraper, a comment on the juxtaposition of old and new in the cityscape, though it’s preferable to Jane Peterson’s thematically consistent but achingly pretty Spring Bouquet.
The show’s poster image is The Crimson Rambler, a canvas by Philip Leslie Hale that, though ostensibly a perfect fit in these environs, is a good example of what the Ashcan School was rebelling against—Hale took an ebbing genteel theme and literally put a bow on it. How much an Abbott Thayer floral, a nursery scene by Dennis Miller Bunker, a couple of gardens by Frederick Freiseke, or an Appledore Island subject by Hassam (a bunch of the latter will convene later this summer at the Essex Peabody Museum in Massachusetts) would have helped can only be imagined. These wants were, in fact, largely satisfied in PAFA’s original version of the show, which has been stripped down for the smaller galleries in Old Lyme.
Still, there are at least a dozen noteworthy paintings here, some by major artists, others by lesser-known painters. Robert Vonnoh’s November is a tonal French garden scene, of the sort many American expatriates produced that split the difference between Impressionism and academicism. (Vonnoh died in France, but is buried in Old Lyme). Charles Courtney Curran, a painter who too often trafficked in calendar-ready banalities, is represented by A Breezy Day, a small and elegant oil of laundresses laying out linen in a stiff wind. Autumn Sunlight, one of Theodore Robinson’s first genuinely impressionistic works, reveals his genius for summoning effects of mottled sunlight on foliage; it is no wonder that of all the American artists who wished to befriend Monet at Giverny, Robinson forged the closest rapport. Also featured are fine paintings by John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf—whose Kalmia is one of the Griswold Museum’s prizes—and Cecilia Beaux’s portrait of Ethel Saltus Ludington, recently gifted to the museum.
Disclosures are in order. The former owner of the Beaux portrait is a friend; moreover, the Florence Griswold Museum is, for all intents, my home field, and remains a congenial site in which to paint and bring classes. Set beside the Lieutenant River, the museum’s grounds once provided summer respite for Metcalf, Hassam, and other grandees of Impressionism. It is the perfect setting for this type of exhibition, even in abridged form.
Some of these works, now so easy for us to digest, would once have been considered radical for their broken color and chromatic palettes. Chase and Hassam were in the vanguard before they became the establishment. Without benefit of novelty, their longevity depends on other, not wholly nostalgic qualities, those of fine drawing and sensitivity to color. Visitors will undoubtedly enjoy The Artist’s Garden for the retrospective comforts it provides, but those who make the effort to really look at the best of these paintings will find more than an exercise in sentimentality. What’s on view is a vital naturalism that was practiced in many permutations; much of the exhibition is rooted in nineteenth-century realism as it ranged from Impressionism to Tonalism, with Maurice Prendergast’s Promenade nudging the proceedings toward the advent of modernism. But by then the art world had already cycled through Cubism, Fauvism, and Dada. With the onset of World War I, the gentility of the cultivated garden as a genre for painting belonged to a bygone era. When the subject reappeared in the mid-twentieth century via Fairfield Porter, it was characterized by an atmosphere that was simultaneously more openly autobiographical and cooler in disposition, and the manicured flora of the garden movement was flattened by the glare of midday sunlight.