Finding Reynolda in "The Artist’s Garden"

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Finding Reynolda in "The Artist’s Garden"

by Allison Slaby, Curator | @LearnReynolda

Reynolda’s fall exhibition, The Artist’s Garden:  American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, covers the period from 1887 to 1920—a period which includes the design and construction phases of Reynolda House and Reynolda Gardens.  Even a cursory review of the works of art in the exhibition from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts reveals deeply shared social and aesthetic concerns betweenThe Artist’s Garden exhibition, design elements of the estate, and paintings in Reynolda’s fine art collection.

The emergence during this period of a dynamic middle class with time and money meant that leisure activities became a frequent and popular pursuit.  In Childe Hassam’s Parc Monceau, the artist explores the city park as a site for leisure activities, such as strolling.  Such activities are also the subjects of John Sloan’s etching Swinging in the Square and George Bellows’s Tennis.



The increasing popularity of shopping as a pastime led to public displays of fashionable clothing and hats, evident in an archival photograph of ladies visiting the Reynolda garden in the early twentieth century, as well as in Charles C. Curran’s In the Luxembourg (Garden) from 1889.



Cultural activities, such as reading, admiring works of art, and educating oneself about refined garden design also emerged as worthy pursuits among the middle class during this period.  Although Daniel Garber’s The Orchard Window and William Merritt Chase’s In the Studio both depict women indoors, the subjects are engaged in elevating the life of the mind—just as important, perhaps, as enjoying the healthful benefits of parks and gardens.



The fact that artists titled their paintings with names of specific varieties of flowers, as in David Johnson’sPhlox and Hugh Henry Breckenridge’s White Phlox, suggests the depth of their gardening knowledge.



Architectural and design elements in gardens (such as greenhouses and statuary, walls and gates, fountains and pools), evident in archival photographs of the Reynolda Gardens and in paintings by Chase, Richard Miller, Jane Peterson, and others, demonstrate that garden designers looked to a variety of classical and modern sources for inspiration.



A photograph of Katharine Smith Reynolds standing on her Tea Porch and Gari Melchers’s Woman Reading by a Garden from 1905 both show the attempts of architects to bring the outdoors in through the inclusion of porches in home design.



Finally, the frequent inclusion of glimpses, through the gardens, of the owners’ homes reveal just how personal these outdoor spaces were.


Impressionism was a highly experimental, even radical, style of painting in the nineteenth century.  Artists investigated new ways of composing their works—broadly horizontal, with a flattened perspective and no suggestion of a horizon line (as we see with Maria Oakey Dewing) …

or vertical and tightly focused, in works by Walter Gay and Childe Hassam.



Boldly saturated color is another hallmark of the style, and it is evident in both painting and decorative arts.  Daniel Garber’s Buds and Blossoms shares a vivid blue palette with a Newcomb Pottery vase in Reynolda’s collection.

The deep green of Reynolda’s vine-encircled Tiffany vase is reflected in Maria Oakey Dewing’s representation of irises.

Robert Vonnoh’s November and the Rookwood Pottery vase evince a more toned-down palette.


In addition to Impressionism, the style known as American Renaissance also characterized fine art and design during this period.  The style looked to the classical past for inspiration and was marked by flowing, classical-style gowns and highly patterned surfaces that suggest stained glass or murals.  Indeed, Violet Oakey, whose painting June is included in the exhibition, was known principally as a muralist.  The painting, produced as a design for a magazine cover, shares a distinct visual resonance with the cover of the 1911 book The Joy of Gardens by Lena May McCauley.


The book, once in the collection of Katharine Smith Reynolds, may be viewed in the current exhibition,Reynolda at 100:  Reynolda Gardens.  This small, focused exhibition in the historic house is installed concurrently with The Artist’s Garden and demonstrates just how beautifully the exhibition and Reynolda complement each other.


I enjoyed seeing the connections between the Reynolda collections and the American Impressionist exhibition--particulalry the opportunity to see photographs (KSR in that white dress on the porch in 1921--wow) and the art pottery (Rookwood) that I did not know about.  Allison's succinct commentary helped to place Reynolda in the cultural milieu of the current exhibition.Well done, Allison! 

We LOVED this exhibit.  Although a W-S native, I live in Seattle. We'd seen the Seattle Art Museum's "Intimate Impressionism", on loan from the National Gallery of Art,exhibit a few weeks before viewing this at Reynolda. That exhibit of European impressionists was darker, heavier, and, oddly, felt less personal despite the opposite intention. I regret not telling some of the staff during our conversation that, in addition to be an interesting contrast, "The Artist's Garden" was so much more moving. Really beautiful and hypnotic. And my 8 year old preferred this one, too! I wish it could return.  Thank you so much for hosting this.

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