Cultivating nature

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A bouquet of Parisian gardens at The Met


  • Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). “Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly,” 1880. Oil on canvas. 25 13/16 x 36 7/16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Gardner Cassatt, 1965

  • Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). “The Parc Monceau,” 1878. Oil on canvas. 28 5/8 x 21 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1959

  • Edouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940). “Garden at Vaucresson,” 1920; reworked 1926, 1935, 1936. Distemper on canvas. 59 1/2 x 43 5/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1952

  • Eugène Atget (French, 1857–1927). “Versailles—Cour du Parc,” 1902. Albumen silver print from glass negative. 8 7/16 x 7 1/16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Kravis Gift, 2005

  • Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891). “Study for ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’” 1884. Oil on canvas. 27 3/4 x 41 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951

Francophile alert! It’s Paris to Provence in New York, no passport required. The “Public Parks and Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met Fifth Avenue radiates a flowering of the masters from Camille Corot to Henri Matisse. Visitors can feast on treasures by van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Seurat, Degas and even the occasional woman, like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.

The show, on view through July 29, traces the reshaping of France’s landscape, a shift in garden design, as it moved from the rigorous formal style for royal palaces like Versailles and the Tuileries to a more naturalist aesthetic, influenced by English parks. Floral still lifes blossomed. Artists, painters particularly, reflected a period in which flowers and plants became central to ceremonies and festivities.

Paris itself was transformed into tree-lined boulevards with hundreds of public parks and green spaces. Thousands of new gas street lamps created the City of Light. In the second half of the 19th century, the largest city in Europe throbbed with finance, commerce, fashion and the arts.

It’s so hard to pick favorites from The Met’s sublime splendor. I couldn’t take my eyes off Monet’s “Garden at Sainte-Adresse.” I was mesmerized by Seurat’s “Study for ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’” which got me thinking about the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sunday In the Park With George.”

That’s the thing about this exhibition. You see Degas’s “A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers” and you are reminded of Degas’s dancers and horses. Or you start comparing how the different masters generated gardens or trees or flowers.

You can feel tension leaving your shoulders as you immerse yourself in an excess of beauty.

Many of the artists represented were gardeners, and their work reflects a depth of knowledge. Gardening became an avocation, and Monet called his garden at Giverny his “greatest masterpiece.”

Look for documentary materials, horticultural books, journals and period ephemera, and watch the two historical film clips.

By the way, The Met’s “backyard,” Central Park, was inspired by the Parisian parks of the same period.

If you’ve been to Paris, then you know how small and large gardens are revealed around almost every corner and how they humanize the city. The Met’s exhibit made me yearn for the City of Light, and as soon as I returned home, I reserved a flight for my next visit.

I plan to amble, to stroll with no destination planned, to do what the French call flâner. I want to wander around that great city, resting occasionally in one of its hundreds of parks and gardens. Thank you Metropolitan Museum of Art, for gathering this bouquet.

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