Are these the most beautiful gardens in art?
From Sargent to Sorolla, Jonas Wood to Winston Churchill, Berkshire to Bali — how artists have found solace and inspiration in gardens the world over
On a summer’s day in 1874, Édouard Manet had just finished posing Claude Monet’s wife Camille and son Jean in the garden of the family home near Paris when their friend and fellow painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir appeared. Inspired by the scene but woefully unprepared, Renoir asked to borrow a canvas, a brush and some paint from Monet, so he could stand alongside and paint Monet’s family at the same time.
Monet’s garden at his rented house at Argenteuil was filled with mature trees and flowerbeds bursting with dahlias, poppies and hollyhocks, and while Manet painted him in this picture tending to his precious garden, in reality that afternoon Monet was standing behind both Manet and Renoir, also with brush in hand, painting Manet in a now lost work.
Later that day, Manet turned to Monet and said of Renoir: ‘He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!’
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Farm Garden with Sunflowers was painted during one of Gustav Klimt’s annual summer holidays at Lake Attersee, in the mountains outside Salzburg. It is thought that the unusual composition, with clusters of small flowers growing right the way up the canvas — higher, in fact, than the heads of the sunflowers — reflects the garden having been planted on a steep slope.
Klimt’s use of thick brush strokes and pure colours in his flower paintings was, in part, inspired by his visit to a Van Gogh exhibition at the Galerie Mietthke in Veinna. By adopting the Dutch painter’s techniques and applying them to his own style of ‘Impressionism meets Pointillism’, Klimt was able to create these impactful, verdant pictures.
Every evening for three months in 1885, the American artist John Singer Sargent would carefully arrange his models — 11-year-old Polly and seven-year-old Dolly, the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard — in the gardens of Farnham House in Worcestershire, England. Then, he would paint rapidly for two to three minutes to capture the light of the setting sun. The house belonged to the American artist F.D. Millet, with whom Sargent was staying, and the original subject of this painting had been Millet’s son.
As autumn encroached and the light began to fade, Sargent had to replace the white lilies with artificial replicas. In the summer of 1886 he returned to the painting, this time in the garden of nearby Russell House, and finished it that October.
This is an important early devotional painting by the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl, an anonymous master who is thought to have travelled to Haarlem sometime around 1480-82, where he established a thriving workshop.
This setting is a reference to the hortus conclusus, a sacred precinct dedicated to the Virgin and an earthly representation of Paradise. Mary’s luxurious robes reflect her status as Queen of Heaven. With her left hand, she picks one of three flowers from a single plant on the stone ledge that serves as her throne. These small white flowers may be read as a symbol of the Trinity.
On the ground before them are wild strawberries, emblematic of the wounds of Christ. This fruit may also represent the Trinity, since the leaves on the stems of wild strawberry plants occur in sets of three.
In Woman with a Parasol in a Garden, Pierre-Auguste Renoir brilliantly creates the impression of a summer garden by applying flicks of pale pink, yellow, red, blue and green paint using the end of a large brush. The scene he creates is a wild, verdant landscape filled with light, movement and texture.
It is thought that Renoir painted Woman with a Parasol in a Garden at his studio in Montmartre, in 1875 or 1876. The studio was surrounded by a large garden, and Renoir's friend, the art critic George Rivière, recalled the moment the painter first laid eyes on the space: ‘As soon as Renoir entered the house he was charmed by the view of this garden, which looked like a beautiful abandoned park’.
Sir Stanley Spencer's Wisteria at Englefield was painted across five weeks in the spring of 1954 in Cookham, Berkshire. It was the third of five commissions from Gerard Shiel, the owner of Englefield House, which was known locally for its gardens.
The finely detailed foliage of the wisteria’s finishing bloom, which consumes the contrasting brickwork, highlights Spencer’s skill and analytical eye when painting en plein air — as well as his love of his native Cookham, a place he called his ‘village in heaven’.
‘I owe it to flowers that I became a painter,’ Claude Monet, the most famous painter of gardens, once said. The garden the artist created at his home in Giverny attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year.
Alongside the famous lily pond, Monet created a classic French flower garden — seen here from the northwest. In dozens of beds laid out at right angles along gravel paths, Monet planted roses, poppies, peonies, lilies, foxgloves and arches of climbing clematis, all carefully planned to provide changing seasons of colour.
In May 1911 Louis Comfort Tiffany invited the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla to Laurelton Hall, his 84-room Moorish mansion set on 580 acres on Long Island.
Although formal portraiture was not Sorolla’s preference, he could usually be persuaded by the prospect of sunlight and painting outdoors. Tiffany, dressed in a crisp summer suit, posed with his dog before his own easel.
The setting is Laurelton’s waterfront patio, surrounded by huge, dense blooms of potted yellow, white and purple flowers, with the shimmering waters of Long Island Sound in the background. Laurelton hall burnt down in the 1950s; the painting is now owned by the Hispanic Society of America.
In 1932, aged 52, the Belgian artist Adrien-Jean le Mayeur de Merprès decided to settle on Bali. ‘There are three things in life that I love,’ he said. ‘Beauty, sunlight and silence. Now could you tell me where to find these in a more perfect state than in Bali?’
Le Mayeur de Merprès’ Women Around the Lotus Pond depicts a group of 15 Balinese dancers parading around an ornamental pond decorated with Hindu carvings. The tropical oranges, reds and yellows cast a warm glow over their faces and bodies, just as the pink water of the pool reflects the sunlight streaming through the vines.
Two months before taking his own life, Vincent van Gogh relocated from an asylum in Provence to Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris. ‘It is profoundly beautiful,’ he wrote to his brother Theo. ‘It is the real country, characteristic and picturesque.’
Auvers-sur-Oise was also where one of van Gogh’s favourite artists, Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), had lived. Daubigny was a celebrated landscape painter and Van Gogh was eager to paint the garden of his former home.
Lacking the essential materials, he decided to use only what he had to hand — a red and white tea towel, possibly taken from the kitchen of the Auberge Ravoux, a local inn where he was staying. He covered the cloth with a thick, pink layer of ground which can still be glimpsed between the powerful, fluid strokes of paint.
Deflated by the horrors of World War I, where his ill-planned Gallipoli strategy had cost him his job, Winston Churchill turned to painting as a means for solace. ‘[It] came to my rescue in a most trying time,’ he later wrote in his book, Painting as a Pastime.
The statesman possessed a natural flair, working mostly en plein air around the British countryside. ‘Just to paint is great fun,’ he once remarked. ‘The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out.’
Garden Scene was most likely painted in the grounds of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, which was at the time owned by Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton, a radical suffragette who in 1909 had been sent to prison for throwing a stone at the Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s car. Today, Churchill’s studio at Chartwell, his former home in Kent, is run by the National Trust.
This painting has been dated to 1626-27, just after Jan Brueghel II’s return from Italy following the unexpected death of his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Jan Brueghel the Younger chose to represent paradise as a garden of potted plants, with a fountain just visible in the background. His finely detailed flowers, leaves and fruits are testament to his skill as a painter of still lifes, as well as the 17th-century obsession with studying the natural sciences. In fact, his father was given the nickname ‘Flower Brueghel’. The staffage in this work was painted by the Antwerp-born artist Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632).
A pioneer of the early American Impressionist movement, John Leslie Breck spent several years at Giverny in the inner circle of Claude Monet, who undoubtedly influenced both the subject matter and stylistic execution of his garden paintings.
This is the garden of a house belonging to Margaret Blaney, the daughter of Breck’s fellow American Impressionist Dwight Blaney. The house is situated on Ironbound, a private island owned by the Blaneys in Maine, near Frenchman Bay.
Monet’s influence is evident in In Garden, Ironbound Island, Maine, although the distinct New England landscape and the vibrant, high-keyed palette distinguish Breck’s brand of Impressionism. And as the historical garden expert May Brawley Hill points out, contemporary photographs of Margaret Blaney’s garden show there were few flowers, suggesting that Breck employed his artistic license when painting such an ‘an unlikely profusion’.
The garden and house in this painting are probably fictitious but represent the formal style employed by John Rose, the King’s Gardener, who also oversaw the gardens of St. James’s Park (opposite Buckingham Palace). Rose published The English Vineyard Vindicated in 1666 with a dedication to Charles II: ‘The Prince of Plants to the Prince of Planters’.
John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to his father, Charles I, had given the exotic, highly prized pineapple its name, describing it as ‘scaly like an artichoke at the first view, but more like a cone of the Pine tree, which we call a pineapple for the forme… being so sweete in smell… [tasting] as if wine, rosewater and sugar were mixed together’.
The American artist Jonas Wood is best known for his paintings of potted plants and hanging baskets, which fill his Los Angeles studio. In Japanese Garden 3, though, the artist expands on his interest in leafy expanses. The canvas shows influences of Matisse and Calder, but most especially, the paintings of David Hockney.
‘Hockney has always pushed the boundaries as a representational painter. That’s why I’m drawn to him — because of this constant invention,’ acknowledges Wood.
In 2019 this picture was sold at Christie’s to raise funds for ‘Art to Acres’. The proceeds — just short of $5 million — went towards funding a 600,000-acre reserve of South American rainforest.