How France’s Obsession with Gardens Shaped the Country’s Artistic Movements


If you can’t make it to France this summer, take a tour of the French gardens in the Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence exhibition featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 29. More than 150 works by painters like Matisse, Rousseau, Monet, and Cassatt outline the beginning of French gardening prestige at the turn of the 18th century.

The transformation of Paris, which started in the late 18th century, coincided with the age of discovery. Voyages of exploration brought back exotic plants from the New World and botany became its own science. “The continual tidal wave of new plants coming into Europe was extremely exciting to scientists, and stimulated interest among gardeners and artists,” explains Colta Ives, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum and the author of the exhibition’s catalogue. The first wife of Emperor Bonaparte herself, Joséphine, is credited with starting a gardening trend in France in the 19th century.

In addition, Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s efforts in modernizing Paris led to the creation of 4,500 acres of green spaces. Royal gardens and green spaces were opened to the public, giving the city a renewed look and becoming a place of leisure for all levels of society. The government, explains Ives, “addressed issues of transportation, sanitation, commercialization, and real-estate development all at the same time, while aiming to build a beautiful city that would satisfy the population and attract foreign investment and tourism.”

Gardeners and families were not the only Parisians to enjoy the new greeneries. Artists ventured out of their workshops and took to the parks, the gardens, and the forests surrounding Paris. Monet and Caillebotte painted the Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, and Manet painted Monet’s garden in Argenteuil. They did not aim to be realistic in their work, but showed their emotional response to the dynamic and profound appeal of nature. Their work all share the key themes that gave rise to Impressionism and reshaped France’s artistic landscape.

Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence
Through July 29
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028