Impressionist Gardens, National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh

Pleasure gardens with flower power

Lynne Walker
Monday 06 September 2010 00:00
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The exhibition of one-hundred or so paintings in Impressionist Gardens is a bit like a well-stocked garden itself.

It's got several striking species in full bloom, some bold and brilliant exotic rarities, a good deal of attractive foliage and a bit of dead wood.

There are horticultural jewels – Monet's Mexican double dahlias from The Artist's Garden at Argenteuil, for example, or Charles Curran's gleaming yellow American lotus lilies. Other works would clearly benefit from a green-fingered mercy-killing, while some, like the best gardens, seem to be works in progress.

Co-curated by Michael Clarke and Clare Willsdon, the show features work by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and Sisley but also the later generation that continued to find fertile inspiration among nature. Alongside French artists there are less familiar examples of gardeniana from American, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish so-called Impressionists, as well as vivid clumps of Scottish flora.

Parsley and camomile are stuffed into Renoir's wild flower vase while, from the mouth-watering grapes in Marie Egner's shady In the Pergola and the silvery sheen of Henri de Braekeleer's savoy cabbages to the glinting oranges in Filippo Palizzi's Sorrento orchard, the fruit and vegetables look good enough to eat.

Sunlight sparkles on foliage and dappled light and dusky night, as well as changing seasons, play their part too. It's tempting to detect the perfumed evening air in Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth's The Rainbow or in Bonnard's The Large Garden in which his children gather golden apples at dusk. You feel the damp in Van Gogh's shadowy Undergrowth and shiver slightly at Gauguin's surprising Skaters in Frederiksberg Gardens in which a leaning tree looms ominously over a fallen skater.

Snow covers the village in Sisley's Winter at Louveciennes, the slanting shapes of three passers-by drawing the eye to the twisted trunks of fruit trees on which a hoar frost hangs like wintry blossom. In Pissarro's The Artist's Garden at Eragny his wife stoops amid sunflowers and dahlias to plant seeds in the heat of the midday sun.

There are snatched glimpses into private gardens where what one writer described as "people plants" recline among the greenery, stroll in parks, work on allotments or, in Manet's witty The Croquet Party hit balls through hoops. Colours span the horticultural palette from the muted tones of Ernest Quost's dewy Morning Flowers to Caillebotte's Nasturtiums, climbing out of their russet background, and from the pink and white daubs spread across Klimt's Italian Garden Landscape to the dazzling crimson of Frederick Childe Hassam's Geraniums.

I would have pruned the flowery, often fanciful captions and weeded out Odoardo Borrani's feeble Girls Winding Wool and Simon Saint-Jean's absurd The Gardener-Girl. But a glimpse of floating water lilies, a perfumed pot-pourri of pinks, lilacs and greens, from Monet's Giverny garden is worth the ticket price alone.

To 17 October (0131 332 2266; Nationalgalleries.org)

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