American Impressionism’s often been seen as a pale copy of the French Impressionism that flowered in the late 19th century. Although American Impressionists early on copied their French counterparts (and even made pilgrimages to Monet’s Giverny garden and home), the exhibition The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through May 24, 2015, proves that American Impressionism quickly blossomed into something distinct — and distinctly American — by the turn of the 20th century. Capturing aesthetically a moment of contradictions as American nativism threatened to close borders while women’s suffrage struggled to open doors, The Artist’s Garden demonstrates the power of flowers to speak volumes about the American past, and present.

Curator Anna O. Marley explains in the catalog that The Artist’s Garden “explore[s] how the companion arts of gardening and painting (and, to a lesser degree, photography) resulted in works of art that are intimate, personal, and complex, and linked to the sociohistoric concerns of the Progressive era American garden movement.” Marley cautions that not all the artists in the exhibition are Impressionists, “but ... that the impressionist movement, along with the emerging middle-class identities bound up in retreat from the city, was crucial to how these artists conceived of and executed their artistic practice.” The strength of both the exhibition and scholarly companion catalog lies in this balancing act between aesthetic and sociohistorical ideas that visually and verbally proves the interconnectedness of both in the people of the time.

The American Garden movement arose out of a concern over the Industrial Revolution’s growing influence over American society as it moved more and more from its agricultural roots.  The 1876 Centennial renewed interest in all things colonial and, presumably, purely American. Artists such as Theodore Robinson (who met, befriended, and even became the next-door neighbor of Monet) flocked to France to learn Impressionist technique first-hand, but soon returned home to paint their own, American home gardens for an increasingly interested audience.

In the age when Darwinism first devolved into eugenics, the American Garden Movement and Impressionism schools both became ways of depicting what was truly American. As Virginia Grace Tuttle points out in the catalog, “dedicated amateurs took up gardening with unprecedented enthusiasm and confidence that their gardens signified a path to spiritual and physical renewal.” A nation of gardeners battling invading weeds easily transferred that passion into the nativist battle against immigrants threatening the “purity” of American bloodlines. Xenophobia often took the form of planting exclusively American flowers such as “hollyhocksphlox, poppies, bush roses, and bouncing bets,” Erin Leary writes. Innocent-looking flowers in these paintings quickly take on less innocent political connotations after reading this history.

Leary takes the connotations even further to argue that “[a]s an ideological endeavor, the garden, both planted and painted, was an allegory for a larger cultural project of American identity, controlled through women’s reproductive value and stringent immigration policy.” Women remained the primary keepers of the home and home garden at the time and, thus, on the frontlines of protecting American purity in both places. Their desire to continue playing such a role at the beginning of the 20th century, however, waned as they looked to a wider world of possibilities professionally, socially, and artistically.

I found myself continually drawn to the women in and behind the paintings in The Artist’s Garden. Childe Hassam’s 1892 In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in Her Garden) shows author and early environmentalist Celia Thaxter in her garden, almost part of her garden thanks to Hassam’s design and color palette. Alan C. Braddock links Hassam’s painting to Thaxter’s environmental efforts to create a bird sanctuary for birds killed for decorations for women’s clothing, with Hassam’s linking of woman and garden an analog for Thaxter’s own writing’s “frequent anthropomorphic identification with nonhuman life forms and her ascription of vital agency, subjectivity, and even intelligence to them.” Thaxter’s garden is just as alive as she is, and she is just as alive as it is — alive to growth, community, and possibilities, despite being “only” a woman.

Similarly, Frederick Carl Frieseke’s paintings of his wife Sadie in her garden — Hollyhocks and Lady in a Garden — blend the avid gardener with her garden in a visually inseparable way. Despite becoming Monet’s next-door neighbor after Robinson returned to America, Frieseke followed Renoir stylistically with his vigorous, rhythmic gestures as well as his sensual nudes painted in open-air gardens. As the exhibition points out, the garden often became a means of confinement of female power — a safe place for them to be what the patriarchy wanted them to be — but Frieseke’s paintings of his wife show her as a powerful figure in her natural element, as much an artist in flora as he was in oil.

These portraits of women stand beside other “portraits” of women painted by women themselves. Maria Oakey Dewing sent me reeling with the exactness of such “worm’s eye view” flower studies such as A Bed of Poppies, Iris at Dawn (Iris), and Rose Garden. Marley praises Oakey Dewing “for the uniqueness of the flower paintings — they are not still lifes, but portraits, and ambitious, full-scale ones at that — that take on the format of horizontal landscape paintings rather than the traditional small scale of still lifes.” Oakey Dewing painted flowers the way she wanted women such as herself to be painted — not as interchangeable, unremarkable symbols of American racial purity or femininity, but rather as unique, individualized living entities deserving of meticulous attention and acknowledgment. Whereas William Blake asks us, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” Oakey Dewing and other women artists ask us to see a woman’s life in a painting of a flower.

Oakey Dewing and her husband, fellow painter Thomas Dewing, make up just one of the many husband-wife teams in The Artist’s Garden. Another intriguing couple is Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale. Leslie Hale’s The Crimson Rambler (c. 1908; shown above) captures many of the themes of The Artist’s Garden all in one image. He loved to paint stereotypically fragile femininity, here modeled by Rose Zeffler, not Lilian. Yet, that signifier of American purity is undercut by the titular Crimson Rambler, a breed of rose that rambled into America from Japan in the 1890s. Hale makes the rose blooms bigger than life, perhaps to accentuate the threat of the invasive, climbing flower. Hale objected to the growing women’s suffrage movement, so The Crimson Rambler might be one big, beautiful allegory of what he saw as the end of the American way of life.

Contrast his vibrant political statement with Westcott Hale’s quieter charcoal portraits also in the exhibition and you start to wonder what their home life was like. Westcott Hale drew Black-Eyed Susans and Gardenia Rose as portraits of women intimately connected to flowers, just as the names of those flowers doubled as women’s names. Like Oakey Dewing, Westcott Hale invested life and intelligence into the trope of women as flowers and replaced delicacy with strength of mind, here in the pensive expressions of the sitters. The curators of The Artist’s Garden placed her portraits with the other works on paper, far from Leslie Hale's The Crimson Rambler, but I wish they could have hung side by side, if only to keep the conflict, and the conversation, going.

The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920 shines a spotlight on a fascinating moment in American social and art history, but never allows either aspect to cast a shadow over the other. The exhibition cuts off coverage almost exactly a century ago, but the issues of immigration and women’s rights continue to confound American culture today. Powerful forces continue to bar the gates of the American “Eden” to foreigners (conveniently forgetting that we’re a nation of immigrants), while others maintain the glass ceiling to women that allows them to glimpse, but not enjoy total equality. The Artist’s Garden may be the best cure for seasonal affective disorder, or “SAD,” but it’s also a sad reminder of how little things have changed since Impressionism first reached our shores.

[Image: Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931), The Crimson Rambler, c. 1908, Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 30 3/16 in. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1909.12.]

[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for providing me with the image above, from a review copy of the catalog to other press materials related to, and a press pass to see The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920, which runs through May 24, 2015.]

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