NEW YORK - Just in time for spring, a section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been transformed into a sort of 19th century palm garden encircled by colorful galleries featuring still lifes, landscapes and other works — complete with Parisian-style signage and park benches — that trace the history of French parks and gardens.
The exhibit makes a case that France's parks and gardens, particularly their dramatic transformation under Napoleon III, had a huge impact on art, horticulture and the concept of outdoor leisure.
"Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence," on view through July 29, consists of 175 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, illustrated books, and even period watering cans and gardening tools. It reveals what happened after the French Revolution, when the nation's many royal gardens and hunting grounds were opened to the public. Suddenly, Paris was transformed from a warren of alleyways to a city of tree-lined boulevards, parks and public green spaces. These became open-air salons for city dwellers and inspired suburbanites to cultivate their own flower gardens.
"The amount of public green space in Paris was rapidly expanded 100-fold, from about 45 acres to 4,500 acres. The result was transformational in many ways, and sparked a real mania for gardening and for the outdoors," says curator Susan Alyson Stein, who organized the show with curator Colta Ives.
The transformation is richly illustrated by the Met's collection of works from artists ranging from Camille Corot to Henri Matisse, many of whom were gardeners. The works are supplemented by a selection of private-collection loans.
The show begins with a section called "Revolution in the Garden," which traces a shift in garden design in the years surrounding the French Revolution of 1789. The very formal style perfected under King Louis XIV at Versailles and the Tuileries gave way to a more naturalistic and meandering esthetic in the manner of English parks.
The "Parks for the Public" section explores the opening of royal enclaves after the revolution and later the transformation of Paris under Napoleon III into a city of leafy boulevards, parks and squares. Royal hunting grounds like those at Fontainebleau were turned into a network of public hiking trails, inspiring the establishment of the first National Parks in the United States.
"One of the pronounced characteristics of our Parisian society is that . everyone in the middle class wants to have his little house with trees, roses and dahlias, his big or little garden, his rural piece of the good life," wrote French journalist Eugene Chapus in 1860, in the midst of this period.
Groupings of works portraying particular parks in or around Paris allow visitors to compare the way various painters and early photographers captured the same places in very different ways. The newly renovated Parc Monceau, for instance, is represented by two paintings by Claude Monet alongside a view by Gustave Caillebotte. Other parks are seen through the eyes of Childe Hassam, Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat, James McNeill Whistler and others.
In "The Revival of the Floral Still Life," the exhibit showcases the revival of that genre alongside the boom in floriculture of the time. Botany had emerged as a science, and the nursery industry expanded. There are vividly colored paintings of bouquets, often picked from the artists' own gardens. Hanging side by side are paintings of peonies and roses by Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, sunflowers as seen by Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, and the lilacs of Henri Matisse alongside those of Mary Cassatt.
"You see a real dialogue between the artists and what they found for inspiration," Stein says.
The second half of the show focuses on private gardens and portraits in gardens, revealing glimpses of backyard retreats where artists cultivated plants and socialized, relaxed and set up their easels to paint.
The exhibit is timed to overlap with the Met's "Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789)" show, on view from April 16 through July 29, which focuses on visitors' impressions of that palace and its gardens during the century before the French Revolution. Viewed together, the exhibits open a window on French culture from the late 17th century through the early 20th century.