Throughout history, nature has served as a refuge from daily life. A place for leisure, sport, and entertainment, the great outdoors have been a playground for people from many walks of life, whether they inhabited pastoral farming villages or suburban centers. In crowded cities, however, access to nature—parks, gardens, wooded areas, or fresh-air excursions to the countryside—was often reserved for the privileged few.
This engaging topic is the subject of The Met’s latest exhibition, Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, which explores the evolution of green spaces for public and private use in France from the late 18th through the early 20th century, as illustrated by works of art.
Predating the scope of the exhibition, the gardens of Versailles rank among the most iconic gardens in France, and perhaps the world. Designed in the 1630s for King Louis XIII, and later expanded in the 1660s by King Louis XIV, the gardens span 800 hectares of land and feature a dizzying array of flora and fauna (including 200,000 trees and flowers, respectively), accented by sculpture, 50 fountains, and a series of manicured lawns and reflecting pools.
Accessible to the public for most of its history, Versailles continues today to serve as an inspiration for artists, landscape designers, and hobbyist gardeners. One such example in The Met collection is John Vanderlyn’s panoramic 1818–19 painting of the palace and gardens of Versailles, which occupies its own gallery (735) here at the Museum. Twelve feet high and 165 feet long, this stunning work reflects the enormity and extravagance of Versailles as seen through the eyes of an American artist in the early 19th century.
Reminding ourselves that an 18th-century visit to Versailles would have required sailing ships and horse-drawn carriages rather than airplanes and automobiles, the journey alone meant that visiting these extraordinary gardens was a special and somewhat luxurious endeavor. For an American artist like Vanderlyn, the visit was a privilege, and while there he made dozens of sketches to remember what he saw.
This painting of the Empress Eugénie by Franz Xaver Winterhaler was made about 30 years after Vanderlyn’s panorama. It shows the elegantly dressed wife of Napoleon III, emperor of France, posing in what was likely an imaginary nature scene. Her dress was inspired by the garb of Marie Antoinette, with whom the Empress remained fascinated throughout her lifetime. Though nearly a century separates the two elegant women, they both shared a genteel interest in nature; though not gardeners themselves, these powerful ladies of privilege appreciated beautiful gardens and flowers.
Jumping ahead another 30 years to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, we observe elite Parisians enjoying nature. Set in Paris, the painting depicts individuals in varying states of flâneur on an island in the Seine. As a result of this public urban location, the island played host to a diverse range of members of society, though they primarily hailed from the upper classes. In keeping with the painting of Empress Eugénie, the ladies are attired in the fashionable mode of the day, with bustles and parasols, and are accompanied by assorted domestic and exotic pets.
In addition to enjoying outdoor settings, the French (and indeed people around the world), also took fascination with bringing nature into their homes. This vibrant still life by Odilon Redon shows a bouquet of local and exotic flowers, perhaps sourced from his own garden or the local botanical gardens of Bordeaux. By the early 19th century, both the upper and middle classes had access to plants not native to France, which they tended in their own gardens.
Well known for his love of horticulture, Claude Monet created iconic paintings of water lilies and outdoor scenes depicting his own garden at his home in Giverny. With the help of his family and a team of gardeners, the artist spent decades planting and tending his truly picturesque garden, which continued to evolve over the course of his lifetime.
This scene by Édouard Vuillard shows a the garden of the artist’s close friends Lucy and Jos Hessel, located in a bourgeois suburb of Paris. The subject, Hessel’s cousin, is shown in a state of quiet introspection as she enjoys the beauty of the outdoors.
Visit the exhibition to learn more about the evolution of public and private gardens in Paris, and shop the exhibition catalogue to discover insights from the exhibition’s curator.