A growing sense that the beauty and freedom of nature could be brought into private gardens began to dominate gardening trends in the early 1800’s. Painters were beginning to feel this same pull towards the intimate, towards art that reflected personal tastes and sensibilities. By the late 1800’s, the two had combined. Impressionist painters like Monet created an artist garden as their own personal palette, arranging and designing gardens with their paintings in mind.
When it comes to creating an artist garden, it is this sensibility that most often prevails, this sense that a garden should be composed as a beautiful painting. More often than not, it is the gardens depicted in impressionistic paintings in particular that we wish to emulate. To effectively reproduce an impressionistic garden, it is helpful to understand some of the basic concepts the artists used in their paintings.
Impressionists placed less emphasis on precise depictions of form than they did on the feelings those forms conveyed. In their efforts to capture the sense and sensation of a garden scene, they developed new painting techniques, discovering ways to make brush strokes, perspective and color express personal sensibilities. In doing so, distinctions between surface and depth, between near and far, dissolved. As these lines blurred, gardens were no longer mere collections of plants, flowers and trees, but became scenes of nature, affected by the natural elements of wind, water, light and shade.
Unless your goal is to recreate an artist’s specific garden or painting – Monet’s water lilies, Van Gogh’s irises, Renoir’s wildflowers – creating an artist garden is more about creating an overall effect than it is about selecting individual plants. The goal is to create a garden where the garden itself is the star, where setting, plantings and arrangements play supporting roles.
Achieving this goal isn’t as abstract as it may sound. Begin by establishing viewpoints, places where you are most likely to enjoy views of your garden as a whole. Just as impressionistic painters did, emphasize the foreground with color. Forego rigid, formal or symmetrical plantings for loose beds with long-stemmed flowers, like cosmos, day lilies and coreopsis.
Impressionists often depicted paths that disappeared from view. When viewing these paintings, the eye initially follows the path, then is brought back to the foreground again. The lesson for home gardeners here is that paths do not necessarily need to lead anywhere. You can duplicate this effect with a garden path that disappears behind a planting of large shrubs or flowers.
To achieve impressionism’s feeling of massed groups of flowers and plantings, avoid strong contrasts of height, texture and color in the garden. While background plantings should be higher than those in the foreground to create a sense of proportion and composition, in an artist garden, these distinctions need not be as defined. Borders need not be as well-defined either. Use discreet borders in your artist garden, like bender board or gravel, or avoid them altogether. Allow plants and flowers to spill over onto lawns or paths.
Different artists prefer different flowers and styles, so your choice of blooms can reflect those of your favorite artist. Van Gogh is known for his sunflower paintings, but often painted irises as well. Plant different types of bulbs in random clumps throughout the garden for pops of color throughout the year. If you admire Monet, who was fascinated by the way the water interacts with light, include a water feature in your garden that can accommodate water lily plantings.
Renoir loved wildflower gardens. A Renoir still life of ragwort, chamomile and wild parsley can inspire one type of artist garden. Delacroix’s vibrant tulips may inspire another type of garden. Klimt most admired gardens entirely filled with flowerings plants. Whatever artist that you choose to emulate, see your garden as a blank canvas, and use your trowel to paint a masterpiece of living art.