Do we owe it to flowers that Monet became a painter?

Shivani Pema

By Shivani Pema, Assurance


Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse  at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA)

It may be that a quote near the entrance of the exhibition best sums up the essence of it all.

Mnet 2

This passion for flowers and gardens is as clear as day throughout the exhibition and fills up the space between the paintings and the viewers.

As I entered the exhibition I could not help but be filled with a sense of wonderment at the lovely paintings hung up. They possessed such beauty, elegance and emotion. It seemed at times that the flowers were dancing in the paintings and that movement was created with the use of light and reflection.


The exhibition explores the role gardens played in art in the early 1860’s through the 1920’s. Many artists at the time were inspired and influenced by the horticultural movement of the 19th century. The cultivation of private gardens gained popularity as the middle class grew with increased affluence.  The painting of these modern private gardens reflected a time of social change in history.  It saw the rise of various aspects of gardening and scientific studies in botany. The importing of seeds from various countries around the world also led to the hybridisation of flowers, and the creation of bigger, brighter and more varied flowers.

Painters took to these gardens for various reasons including the sheer natural beauty of it as well as the sense of calm and peace obtained when spending time connecting with nature. Portraying these gardens in new innovative means ignited their imagination and heightened their sense of colour.

The exhibition takes you through the various phases on Monet’s life and his artistic journey. It had specific sections relating to Monet’s earlier paintings, then his earlier and later years at Giverny. The changes and developments of his painting style and method through these different time periods is distinct. His earlier years at Giverny were characterised by smaller canvases and trying to master the reflections of the sky and surroundings on the surface of the water. His paintings during this time focussed on a series of 12 paintings of the Japanese bridge as well as over 40 paintings of water lilies which he started in 1902.


One of the more surprising facts learned about Monet at the exhibition was about his technical knowledge of flowers and botany. His passion for the subject led him not only to paint but also to study. To realise this dreams at Giverny he constructed a greenhouse, employed a staff of at least six and cultivated over 70 species in trees and flowers.

During his later years at Giverny you can see a real shift in the way Monet was painting.  He was taken with depression due to the death of his wife and suffered with poor vision. A few years later the 1st World War broke out and people had begun to flee Giverny. This emotional turmoil is reflected in his paintings at the time where his use of colour became darker, more violent.

In Monet’s final decade he began to paint the water lilies on larger canvases away from the garden but rather in a special studio that he had designed. Again his painting style and method changed. He was no longer trying to portray the literal subject matter as he saw it, but instead was trying to convey the relationship between himself and the gardens.  He is quoted saying ‘The subject is secondary. What I want to reproduce is that which is between the subject and me’, and wow did he manage to achieve it.

The exhibition ends with a climax where a three part water lily extravaganza is reunited after decades. The space leaves you breathless yet overcome with peace and awe. The paintings seem to be limitless, it’s beauty endless and the concept of space and time vanquished.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is open until 20 April 2016. EY employees receive free access as part of our corporate partnership with the RA.