Impressionists: The avant gardeners

WITH brilliant colour, superstar artists and a special focus on the nation's most popular pastime, this exhibition can hardly fail, writes Tim Cornwell

IN PIERRE-AUGUSTE Renoir's classic painting Woman with a Parasol in a Garden, an enigmatic yet romantic central figure strolls through an explosion of colour. Dated shortly after the famous first Impressionist show in 1874, it is "an archetypal Impressionist work", says the director of the National Gallery of Scotland, Michael Clarke. "That's exactly what people think of when they think of Impressionism."

The painting, held in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, is one of about 90 loans from 37 galleries and collections worldwide heading for Edinburgh next summer. It is a keystone work in Impressionist Gardens, billed as the first international show to examine the Impressionist painters' passion for horticulture. The work of Monet, Renoir, Czanne and others reflected fashion shifting in the 19th century from great estates and parks to the more modest modern phenomenon of the suburban garden. "Gardens were central to many of the Impressionists' activity," says Clarke. "They were very suburban in a way. It is almost the art of suburbia."

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The popularity of Impressionist painting has long held Edinburgh in its grip. In the first decades after the Second World War, the Edinburgh International Festival hosted a string of shows on individual painters. But critics spurned their style in the 19th century – so why did the 20th-century public grow to love them so much?

"On the surface at least, they are easy to understand," says Clarke. "They paint everyday subjects: streets, landscapes, the weather, gardens. What they paint relates to people's experience of life. It's not some obscure saint being martyred, or some obscure episode from Roman history, or conceptual art, or an abstract image."

In the late 19th century, with the production of industrial paints, they had also new, brighter colours available, and flower gardens became the ideal subject matter. "They are some of the brightest paintings that were ever made," Clarke said. "It's the chocolate-box effect, if you like. We find them stunningly attractive, almost idealised images of everyday life."

As the demand for major paintings for international gallery "blockbusters" has boomed, single-artist shows have given way to a mix of works in themed exhibitions. Even so, the National Galleries of Scotland set visitor records with Monet: The Seine and the Sea. It followed with Degas, then with The Italians in Paris, and Impressionism and Scotland. Impressionist Gardens, opening on 31 July next year, does not only play to the green-fingered set. Its line-up brings a core of key works that are new to Scotland, including ten Monet loans, two Renoirs, two Manets, two Klimts, two Van Goghs, three Bonnards, five Pissarros, to name just a few of the paintings that will feature in the exhibition.

Looking both at the precursors of Impressionism and the painters who followed, the show will also introduce lesser-known figures. "We are going to have some artists who are relatively little known to British audiences," said Clarke. "You have a dish that you know very well, then something new to try out as well."

For instance, there are two works by the "forgotten Impressionist", Frdric Bazille. A close friend of Monet, he was inspired by growing up in a grand house and gardens in Montpellier, in the south of France. He was killed in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, aged 29, whereas Monet lived until 1926.

The show also includes painters from Lyons and early 19th-century flower specialists, such as Jean-Franois Bony. It ranges to the German Impressionist Max Liebermann and encompasses work from the French collector, gardener and painter Gustave Caillebotte, including Les Dahlias, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers. In fact, it was Caillebotte's personal collection of Impressionist works that became the basis of the French national collection, centred on the Muse d'Orsay in Paris.

The inspiration for the show came from Clare Willsdon, senior lecturer in the history of art at Glasgow University. Armed with her book, In the Gardens of Impressionism, she approached Clarke with the idea, and he agreed.

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Monet's gardens at Giverny, where he lived, worked and developed them from the 1880s to the 1920s, are the natural starting point. He famously asked his Giverny gardeners to dust his lily pads to keep them fresh. But his earlier gardens, at Argenteuil and at Vtheuil, where his wife, Camille Monet, died, are also featured. The loan of The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, his 1873 painting, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington was locked in four years ago. A collaboration deal followed with the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which has a strong selection of garden works and is contributing several. Clarke then embarked on rounding up paintings from Paris to Melbourne. The show includes an American, John Singer Sargent, who painted with Monet at Giverny. A late addition was Austria's Gustav Klimt with his Italian Garden Landscape.

The three-month exhibition will also benefit from drawing on the rich library of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. "There will be gardening manuals and magazines, the kind of things they would have read," says Clarke.

It has been a costly, time-consuming show to put together. The galleries decline to put a figure on how much it will cost to ship these multimillion-pound paintings to Edinburgh and back. But despite half a century of Impressionist shows, the fertile and relatively novel mix of perennially popular art with horticultural history seems sure to pay dividends with both local people and tourists. "I suppose people eventually get tired of something," says Clarke. "But they don't seem to be getting tired of Impressionism yet."


• Woman with Parasol in a Garden 1875-6

• Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

This work dates from shortly after Renoir won acclaim when he showed six paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874. Renoir also famously painted Monet in his garden at Giverny.


• The Parc Monceau 1878

• Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Parc Monceau in Paris saw Monet at work in a garden in a very urban setting. The park was created for the powerful Duc d'Orlans in 1778 and was bought and opened for the use of the public by Napolon III in 1862. It was the most lite of the Paris parks, boasting a collection of ornamental plants "from the most diverse countries of the globe", such as the giant Abyssinian "Bruce banana", and Begonia fuchsioides… a hundred times more brilliant than the most beautiful coral".


• The Public Garden at Pontoise 1874

• Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Camille Pissarro, the Caribbean-born French Impressionist, lived from 1830 to 1903 and was a mentor to Czanne and Gauguin. The garden in the town of Pontoise, near Paris, created by a wealthy financier, was near his home.


• Holyday c1876

• Tate, London

The French artist Tissot, who settled in London after the Franco-Prussian War, painted Holyday in the garden of his mansion in St John's Wood, where he had styled the pool on the Parc Monceau in Paris. Edgar Degas had tried, and failed, to enlist Tissot in the first Impressionist show, seeing his work as an essential part of the oeuvre.


• Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight 1879

• Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The American artist was presumably a regular visitor to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, capturing a couple's balmy evening stroll in this work. The 17th-century gardens are a short walk from both the cole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied, and the rue Notre Dame des Champs, where his studio was.


• Rosebushes Under the Trees c1905

• Muse d'Orsay, Paris

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Loans of work by Klimt, the Austrian painter made famous by works like The Kiss, were only recently arranged from galleries in Paris and Switzerland. Rosebushes under the Trees was produced, as were most of Klimt's landscapes, during the summer holidays of 1904 and 1905, when he stayed in Litzlberg, amid the Alpine lakes.


• Child amongst the Hollyhocks 1881

• Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Working with Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot (1841-95) was one of very few women painters of this period. The sister-in-law of Edouard Manet, she joined the first Impressionist exhibition, but was long overlooked because of her sex. This picture of her daughter, Julie, is thought to have been painted in one sitting.


• The Market Gardens 1874

• Leeds City Art Gallery

Born in Paris to English parents, mostly living in France, Alfred Sisley painted landscapes out of doors, rather than in the studio, working alongside Renoir and Monet. He lived and died in poverty, with his work achieving fame only after his death. He loved the gentle landscape near the forest of Fontainebleau, but also became famous for his English works depicting the River Thames.

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