(Fell. Frances Lincoln 1991)

Listening to: The Cinematic Orchestra, Les Ailes Pourpres (BSO)

{Versión en español, aquí}

When colours are alive, we paint gardens.

Many landscape gardeners might agree with the sentiment, portraying themselves as artists whose paint tubes are full of seeds, shrubs and trees, eager to enrich the blank canvas of soil with texture and colour. Others, however, will frown upon such a comparison, finding fault with it for being too limiting, or perhaps too generous.

The relationship between art and gardens is a rather thorny issue. To some, gardening is an art form; to others, the two things aren’t remotely alike. I personally harbour no doubts on the subject: a garden can be a work of art. Perhaps not every garden is one, just as not every sketchy drawing may deserve to be called “a masterpiece”. But some gardens are doubtlessly works of art.

In retrospect, the movement that helped the most to enthrone gardens as artistic subjects worthy of admiration and respect might have been Impressionism, with Claude Monet’s famous statement referring to Giverny as his “most beautiful work of art”.

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‘Summer Landscape’ (1875), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The fascination that gardens exerted on many of the Impressionists was strong.

The stories about these relationships have been explored in countless ways, whether in books, exhibitions, or even films; indeed, the names of some of its characters are rather famous, even among people who aren’t particularly well-versed in the history of painting. Such is the case with Monet himself, the “prince” of the Impressionist team, the main character —albeit rather by accident, not by his own design— in the whole show.

Before we go on, I’d like to make something clear: I love reading, seeing, researching about Monet. In the BBC show The Impressionists, Claude was my favourite. We all love Monet, we are entranced by his Nymphéas, his wisterias, the agapanthus, the poppy fields, the rose-covered cottages, and all the rest. I even like the flowers he didn’t paint, of all things.

However, I’m even more attracted to the stories that posterity, with her mysterious laws, has deemed less worthy of interest, and thus forgets to dust and polish as often —or at all. Just as I enjoy talking about the flowers nobody talks about, I feel drawn to shine a light on those gardens to which time has paid little attention. I am lured in by the very dimness they live in, by the promise that I shall find some delightful surprise that’s still a secret known by just a few of us. The intellectual equivalent of discovering something off the beaten track.

As it happens, I wasn’t looking for a book about Renoir’s gardens on purpose; in fact, I didn’t even known that there existed particular gardens with strong ties to Renoir, some kind of analogue to Monet’s Argenteuil or Giverny. I learnt of their existence thanks to Amazon, whose algorithmic magic suggested (after I had bought a few second-hand titles on Monet and Giverny) that I “might also be interested in” a bunch of titles, among which Derek Fell’s Renoir’s Garden.

It was only then that I discovered that there was a garden, at least one, that was Renoir’s.

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I bought it because it was cheap (bless second-hand books), because I liked the nasturniums on the cover… and because I had never read anything entirely devoted to Renoir and gardens before, so it was bound to be a discovery, no matter what.

Having now read the book’s scarce 100 pages of text interspersed with huge photographs and paintings, it turns out it was an excellent investment.

(It’s also true that, had I bought it at its original prices, I might’ve wrinkled my nose a bit: 13 pounds are a tad too much for my wallet right now).

Allow me to share with you the sprouts of thought that the book has called forth…

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  • Title: Renoir’s Garden
  • Author: Derek Fell
  • Publisher: Frances Lincoln
  • Year: 1991

The book in three lines:

An agreeable, illustrated stroll across the geography and the history of Renoir’s last years in Les Collettes, the piece of land he bought in Provence. ’Tis a book both light and deep, which offers food for thought and has planted new seeds of curiosity in my mind that I’ll be certain to explore in the future..

I loved:

– The comparisons between the styles of Monet and Renoir, and the different relationships they established with their respective gardens.

I find the pairing gardens-Impressionism very intriguing. I might not have had the opportunity to research it as much as I might’ve liked to, but I have been lucky to read a few books on the subject: In the gardens of Impressionism (Willsdon, 2004, Thames & Hudson), and several Monet-o-centric volumes, such as the excellent Monet’s Water Lilies (Rusell, 1998, Bulfinch Press), or Monet at Giverny (by Caroline Holmes; I recall neither the publishing house nor the year my copy was published, and I don’t have it here with me).

So, I wasn’t exactly the greenest greenhorn on the subject.

And yet I realize now that when I bought the book on Renoir and Les Collettes, my unconscious expectations were naive. When I stepped into the pages of Renoir’s garden, a part of me expected to find some sort of “Giverny 2” (leaving aside the inevitable differences in geography and climate). After all, they were both painters, both impressionists, friends, lovers of light…

the-view-from-collettes-1911
‘The View from Collettes’ (1911).

I mistakenly expected a story similar to that of Monet with Giverny; I thought I would glimpse the same pattern, see signs of a master blueprint entitled “Relationships-between-impressionists-and-their-gardens” that might take form in slightly different ways, yet retaining an essential unity across all cases.

Certainly there are many similarities; nevertheless, Renoir’s garden doesn’t have all that much in common with Monet’s, and it’s not due of any superficial detail, but because they spring out of diverging principles. Monet and Renoir’s views on their relationship with gardens and nature are rather different, and I loved the author’s exploration of this aspect.

This must be put into perspective, taking into account each painters’ limitations: whereas Monet’s health was relatively good (leaving cataracts aside) during his twilight years, Renoir’s health had deteriorated after he’d suffered a cycling accident in 1897. He had attacks of rheumatism, partial facial paralysis, and increasingly severe mobility problems, until it came to a point he couldn’t walk at all. Illness twisted his bony hands in knots to such an extent that he basically needed his pencil tied to his hand in order to paint.

self-portrait-with-a-white-hat-1910.jpg!Blog
Self-portrait of Renoir with a white hat (1910).

Renoir could not, physically speaking, be his own land’s gardener.

And still, one can glimpse a difference beyond such limitations, a divergence in the way in which each painter looked at his own garden.

Renoir acquires Les Collettes in 1907, despite already having a comfortable house in Burgundy (the region of his wife, Aline). He doesn’t buy it so he could have the garden entirely redesigned, or so he could forge a new kind of relationship with the place, breaking with all the previous owners’ traditions. No

Renoir buys Les Collettes because he wants to save its olive grove, an orchard of some 150 trees with trunks as knotted and twisted as the painter’s own hands.

Rumours had it that a nursery wanted to acquire the land to grow carnations; this necessarily implied uprooting and discarding the olive trees, which were de trop. When Renoir got wind of it, the sole idea of those venerable trees being turned into paperweights or spoons was so abhorrent to him, that he decided to buy the land himself.

olive-grove-at-Les-Collettes

Les Collettes ends up under his care because he wants to preserve the land, just as it is: to Renoir, this piece of ‘nature’ was already perfect. Far from wishing to rebuild, redo, redesign… Renoir wants nothing more than to add another link to the old chain that bound those olive trees, those lands, to the region’s past and traditions.

He paints them, sure. But I find it to be something more spontaneous, more domestic.

Whereas at Giverny Monet digs, cleans, plants, establishes a new order in his little green universe and builds a garden like nobody had ever seen before, Renoir doesn’t build anything; he barely wants anything to change at all.

Not even the weeds must be removed from the pathwalks. Indeed, “What weeds?” is Renoir’s terse reply to a gardener’s enquiry into the matter.

I found it utterly fascinating, this gentle exploration of two painters who were so close in friendship and artistic talent, and the vastly different —yet interesting— relationships they established with their gardens. I’ve been left wishing to learn more about it. Bravo, Mr. Fell.

Finding out about the wide-ranging functions that the gardens and orchards had at Les Collettes: not only did they produce artistic inspiration for paintings, but also globe artichokes and onions, and every sort of edible vegetable; olives, grapes, and even flowers to be sold.

Les Collettes was a fully functional farm, essentially self-sufficient in many aspects.

I loved reading about the orange* blossoms being harvested and carted down to Grasse, where they were sold to the perfume factories to extract their essential oils and use them in perfumes and soaps. And they also had glasshouses, wherein carnations, roses, and of course several kinds of edible vegetables were grown year-round.

*from bitter orange trees, I suppose. Renoir enjoyed seeing the globes hanging from the branches, and had had some of the sweet orange trees replaced with bitter ones to prevent his little son from stealing the fruit.

The book’s description of the Renoirs’ life at Les Collettes conveys a sense of easy conviviality, of a cheerfully informal atmosphere. It would seem that the painter enjoyed his last years there with good humour despite his health problems, and in no small measure thanks to his wife, whose role is crucial if one wishes to understand these polysemic, multifaceted gardens that could as easily provide olives as artistic inspiration for Renoir’s canvases.

apples-and-grapes.jpg!Blog
‘Apples and Grapes’ (c. 1910). The fruits and vegetables produced at Les Collettes make frequent appearances on Renoir’s canvasses, small studies of strawberries, apricots, lemons, onions…

The countless little details I would’ve never thought of, had the book not mentioned them, but that were essential in enabling the existence of the gardens at Les Collettes.

Although today we might think that keeping a large garden in Mediterranean Provence is a piece of cake, the Renoirs could actually afford it due to an important, key innovation: running water.

Hadn’t they installed it when they moved into the house, they would’ve had to water the pelargoniums, the irises, the cabbages and vines… with water hauled all the way from the river Cagnes, on foot. And the terrain is rather hilly… (indeed, the name “Les Colettes” is a direct reference to the hills around Cagnes).

Whereas watering can be considered secondary at Giverny, which is located in a much rainier region, a big garden without water would’ve hardly had a chance at Cagnes

I liked:

– Learning about Renoir’s painting technique during his Provence years.

Although I knew a few of Renoir’s paintings, none of them were of his period at Les Collettes; and I’d never exerted myself to find out more about his creative process.

Fell introduces us to how Renoir worked through the words of the painter’s friends (Albert André) and art critics who’ve studied his work. The descriptions are luminous, beautiful:

With his brush, Renoir would apply colour in thin, transparent layers, one over the other, each veiling the last without concealing it, so that he obtained a smooth, silky lustrous texture, full of deep limpid gleams.” (p. 43)

roses-skin

The intimate connection between roses, Renoir’s favourite flower, and skin; painting flowers as a preparation to paint people (mostly children and women; he loved the female form); getting to know about his work as a sculptor, something about which I had no idea about… these are artistic aspects of Renoir I didn’t know, and that have given depth to the image I now have of him.

(Although it has made me doubt about the kinds of oils used in the paints: linseed is mentioned, but I had previously read that it was poppyseed oil that which was used by impressionists… hmmm. Will have to do some research here).

I’m used to illustrated books that have been born in the digital era. I have few recollections of what working with film rolls was like, the handling, the waiting. I never learnt the art of photography on film; my curiosity brought me closer to this world after the industry had swerved towards the digital.

Perhaps that’s why I’m not automatically aware of the craft and the work involved in preparing the photos to illustrate this book, which came out in 1991. And this would’ve escaped my notice, had the author (who’s also the book’s photographer) not included a section sharing some details on his technical choices at the end of the book. These comments, made in an affectionate and respectful tone towards both photography and the garden, made me see the pictures with different, less absent-minded eyes.

And I appreciate that.

– The book has a great list of botanical species present in Renoir’s garden, with their scientific names correctly written (hurray!). Nothing too long, but neither is it poor.

plant-list

Another lovely section included is a map of Les Collettes, and a few annexes with extra information on other interesting gardens that one may visit in the region. These are wonderful, thoughtful details that speak of an author with taste, somebody who makes an effort to share information beyond what’s strictly required of him

Random Reflections&Thoughts:

We were discussing with R about the differing visions of Monet and Renoir, wondering which one was more similar to the Japanese conception of the garden. From what little I know, I suspect ’tis Monet who comes the closest, with his yearning to humanize nature with man-made retouches that nevertheless must remain invisible to the undiscerning eye: it’s all about bringing nature’s essence to the fore through lots of primping and careful manicuring.

Renoir’s approach, on the other hand, I see as being more spontaneous, less obsessed over details. More approachable. Whereas others might covet exotic blooms, Renoir likes mimosas and daisies and roses.

The simple beauty of a handful of strawberries on the table. Less of an interventionist, perhaps more beatific.

Fell mentions that Renoir’s vision of Eden implies (wo)man’s presence, which is perhaps why the landscape elements that have absorbed this cultural bond —or have even become emblems of it— are those which attract him the most. Les Collettes was, after all, saved because of its olive grove: an evocative space which brings to mind the idea of ancient ties, spanning thousands of years, between mankind and plants… in no small part thanks to the useful oil they yield (the Renoirs did have their olives pressed into oil. ’Tis said that Renoir, who enjoyed tasting the first pressing on a piece of warm toast with a sprinkle of salt, could tell apart the flavour of oils that came from “his” olives, which he considered superior to that of others’).

rose-renoir
Renoir had a rose cultivar named after him in 1909, “Peintre Renoir”; the real roses you see on the photo are R. banskiae ‘Alba’, which were not in Renoir’s garden – but their sister ‘Lutea’ was.

Whereas Monet is practically synonymous with Giverny, where he supervises nearly each and every single aspect of his garden, one might say that Renoir entrusts the entire management of Les Collettes to his wife, although any intervention in the garden must obtain his explicit approval first. And, although Aline smoothly assumes her role as manager of their small world, Renoir still lives at its centre; everything revolves around him, yet in a friendly, non-despotic way.

After having read this book, I realize that now I think of Giverny as a garden cast in shade, a beautiful yet rather solitary creation that exists almost exclusively for Monet’s personal enjoyment. On the other hand, Les Collettes radiates light and smiles, nothing but another piece of the puzzle in a joyful family life full of children (Renoir’s youngest son, Claude, was born when his father was around 60), of cauliflowers, roses, and painting.

I admire people who are able to confront a life burdened with chronic ailments and pain, and transmute them into beauty. At one point Fell quotes Matisse, who visited Renoir at Les Collettes in 1918. Aline had died a few years back, the painter’s hands were in a dreadful state, his joints terribly swollen and deformed,

… And he still did all his best work… As his body dwindled, the soul in him seemed to grow stronger continually, and to express itself with more radiant ease.

This, I believe, is art that goes beyond the canvasses and the plants.

Now I must truly find a way to visit that garden.

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References&Resources

All paintings by Renoir come out of Wikiart; the pictures of the book (meaning the photos where the book is pictured, you understand), by Yours Truly.

 

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