Winter continues to cling to the city, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing its part to plant seeds of spring by mounting an exhibit focused on gardens.
“Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence” specifically highlights French gardens in the 19th century, drawing heavily on the Met’s extensive collection of Impressionist treasures.
Curator Susan Alyson Stein, who organized the exhibit, said the show offers a “fresh perspective on [the] best-known and hidden treasures” of the Met, from artists “who celebrated the out of doors as a place for leisure, renewal and inspiration.”
The first part of the exhibit uses photos, paintings and etchings to illuminate the greening of France catalyzed by the French Revolution and Empress Joséphine. Of particular note are several color engravings of flowers that the incomparable Pierre-Joseph Redouté produced for botanical guides.
But the clear focus of this show is the more than four dozen paintings by the likes of Monet, Courbet, Matisse, Van Gogh and Renoir.
Viewing so many variations on a theme reveals both similarities and differences. Monet’s use of sunlight in several early works, such as 1867’s “Adolphe Monet Reading in a Garden” with its brilliant blue sky casting clearly delineated shadows of dappled leaves on the ground, shines brightly compared with his contemporaries as well as his own later work.
Several female painters, mainly Berthe Morisot and the American Mary Cassatt, are included in the exhibit, but women make their most emphatic appearance at the end where a dozen portraits almost exclusively depict women gazing to the side. The only male models are Monet’s young son Jean, shown astride a toy horse and lounging with his maman Camille (as Claude gardens in the background), and a gentleman in a top hat who leans lecherously behind Camille perched uneasily on a bench.
One nit with the exhibit is its location within the museum. Despite the Met’s proximity to Central Park and ample access to natural light, the exhibit is hung in a windowless basement gallery. The rooms open onto a sunken atrium courtyard — where four green Parisian-style park benches and some potted plants have been placed — but it would have been nice to view these masterpieces painted en plein air with an eye toward the actual outdoors, whether still covered in white or just beginning to green.
‘Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence’ runs through July 29 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., metmuseum.org