Garden Side. From Monet to Bonnard: Women in the Garden

Designing the garden in an enclosed space leaves room for all kinds of dreaming. A silent world, the garden is also a place for moments suspended in time. Women in the garden are one of the recurrent themes found in the works of certain Impressionist painters. Their models pose charmingly in their daily activities and the painter's eye occasionally surprises silent conversations, hidden emotions and ineffable dreams.
James Tissot specialized in these melancholic portraits, which fit with the fin-de-siècle sensibilities. In another vision of impressionism, Henri Martin fills his landscapes with feminine figures, using the pointillist technique. As for the Nabis, they revisited the subject of women in the garden with a skillful interplay between theater and staging, where internal silences reigned.

On the Grass (1880) by James TissotMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Suspended time and a moment of happiness, this engraving bears witness to Tissot's technical skill, as he rejuvenated his style while spending time with his muse, his partner Kathleen Newton, a beautiful Irish divorcee. Tissot created an enclosed world in his London home for her, a reassuring space where plants reigned, even in the house, thanks to a luxuriant greenhouse.

The garden was inspired by the Parc Monceau in Paris, from which Tissot copied the colonnade.

Kathleen is often depicted lying down, asleep, or playing with their children, Violet and Cecil George, or their cousins.

However, death prowled nearby and Kathleen had been suffering for a long time. The joyous days were brutally brought to an end. Kathleen died of tuberculosis on November 9, 1882. Tissot left London five days later, never to return.

Woman in a park (Muse kneeling under the pines) by Henri MartinMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Originally hailing from Toulouse, Henri Martin spent the majority of his life in the south of France, and always remained particularly attached to the atmosphere found in the Midi landscape. Although he knew the regions of Lot and Causses du Quercy very well, he was also fond of coastal cities, such as Marseille and Collioure. Without an exact date, this piece may depict these Mediterranean landscapes.

Martin used a combination of wide and dotted strokes to create the light mirroring on the surface of the water, as well as to depict the shadows playing on the grass under the trees. An avid decorator with a symbolistic style, he perhaps imagined a muse here, in this figure contemplating the sea, kneeling under the pine trees and wearing a dress in the same shade of white as the flowers on the bay tree.

Woman by the rose bush (1891/1893) by Ker-Xavier RousselMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

This young woman, whose identity can be guessed solely based on the vague profile, is surely the sister of Édouard Vuillard, Marie, who married Ker-Xavier Roussel in July 1893. She can be seen wearing this blue coarse wool dress in other paintings by Roussel and Vuillard.

Marie is absorbed in sewing work, in her Aunt Saurel's mineral garden in Créteil. Roussel completed several paintings depicting the young woman in this same garden, most likely shortly before their marriage: the echo—or the reflection—of a love song, of intimacy in the open air, which flowed between them.

This hasty garden view, as if seen as a shortcut with its successive layers lacking any depth, appears to be composed of a collage of several shapes. However, it also carries a trace of the iconography found in medieval enclosed gardens, still firmly present at the time in the painter's work.

Woman in a striped dress ("Paysages" series) (1898) by Ker-Xavier RousselMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

In 1898, Roussel worked on a series of colored lithographs for merchant Ambroise Vollard. In this sequence, soberly entitled “Paysages” (“Landscapes”), the artist portrays pastoral and timeless scenes, in which bathers and nymphs are at one with the surrounding vegetation.

“Femme en rouge dans un paysage” (“Woman in Red in a Landscape”) and “Femme en robe à rayures” (“Woman in a Striped Dress”) are the only images in this series that indicate the period in which they were painted, with their contemporary clothing.

Woman in Red, in a Landscape (1898) by Ker Xavier RousselMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Roussel's lithographs retain the delicacy of the pastels that he used for their preparatory drawings. The white of the paper is notably present, and plays a role in fusing together the elements, uniting earth and sky, as well as water and clouds. The limited color palette creates poetic echoes between the women's dresses and the nature that surrounds them.

The feminine silhouette seen in these two lithographs may very well be the same person—Roussel's wife, Marie. The Natanson property in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, which Roussel often visited at the time, may well have inspired these landscapes with an impressionist ambiance.

Les Attitudes sont faciles et chastes (Attitudes Are Simple and Chaste) (published 1895) by Maurice DenisThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The “Amour” (“Love”) series, which was started by Maurice Denis in 1892 and published by Ambroise Vollard in 1899, brings together the artist's lithography studies. The collection is composed of a dozen plates dedicated to his young wife Marthe Meurier. In 1891, during the period before their engagement, Denis wrote a series of texts in his “Journal”, and used extracts from these texts as titles for these lithographs. This portrait of Marthe under the blossoming chestnut trees is entitled “Les attitudes sont faciles et chastes” (“Attitudes are Easy and Innocent”).

In the lithographs where Marthe is depicted outdoors, Denis plays on the metaphor of the woman as a flower, among the flowers.

Gentle and delicate, here she poses underneath the leafy greenery which is scattered with pyramids of chestnut tree blossoms, a motif the Nabis cherished.

The Bath outdoors (1904) by Maurice DenisMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Family life and childhood are a central subject in the works Maurice Denis created from the late 1890s to the early 1900s. His marriage to Marthe gave them six children. In this piece dating from 1904, the child being bathed may be a young Anne-Marie, who was born in 1901.

Beyond the religious reference tied to the theme of baptism, symbolizing the notion of purity, the child's bathing also primarily enables Denis to capture a particularly realistic moment, one of intimacy shared between mother and child.

Around 1900, these family scenes also gave the artist the chance to explore new formal variations.

The background is composed of dense, thriving vegetation which plays on the effects of shadow and light, and has been created using a light stroke, similar to the impressionist style.

The figures have been created with flat-tinted colors which, combined with the decorative motif of the dress, are reminiscent of artwork from the Nabis period.

In the foreground, the juxtaposition of the colored dots calls to mind the art of Georges Seurat, which Denis particularly responded to. However, far from subscribing to the theories of divisionism, the pointillist strokes convey the painter's purely formal and decorative quest.

Lucie Hessel and her dog Basto at the garden of "Château Rouge" (1907) by Édouard VuillardMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The subject of women in the garden can also be found in Vuillard's photography. From the end of the 1890s, Vuillard seized the chance to work with the possibilities created by a medium that was made simpler and more accessible by means of new Kodak cameras. For more than forty years, he constantly photographed his friends and family, as well as the places where he created happy memories in their company.

The elegant Lucie Hessel, Vuillard's muse and mistress, poses here with her dog, Basto, in an image that reveals—even more than the artist's work or journal entries—the tenderness of their relationship.

Lucie Hessel at Vasouy (1904) by Édouard VuillardMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

With time ticking by, photography allowed Vuillard to retain the nebulousness of the situations, characters, scents, and colors which formed his universe. He regularly consulted the hundreds of monochrome snapshots he had taken, which were all in the same format (3.5 x 3.5 inches), enabling him to conjure up sensations that he felt he may have forgotten. Working on a decorative piece in 1908, he came across his photographs from the previous summer, and wrote in his journal, "I spent a moment in the workshop. The purple of the dress (the mauve of nature comes back to my mind's eye as I look at the photo)."

Credits: Story

The exhibition "Côté jardin. De Monet à Bonnard", curated by Cyrille Sciama and Mathias Chivot, is presented at the musée des impressionnismes Giverny from May 19 to November 1, 2021.

The musée des impressionnismes Giverny warmly thanks :
Hélène Bailly, Anisabelle Berès Montanari, Marie Christine Bonola, Jeanne Dehaye, Nicolas Langlois.

Discover the exhibition catalogue, published by the musée des impressionnismes Giverny and the RMN :

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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