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OBSERVATIONS : GARDENS : The Artist's Eye : Tracing the History of the Garden Through Paintings

July 05, 1987|MAC GRISWOLD

TREES PLAY SUCH a prominent part in the stories and pictures of Paradise that it is worth asking why. Their cool shade is always mentioned, of course, as is the beauty of their blossom and their delicious fruit, but they seem particularly appropriate to Paradise imagery for another reason. Trees are big--bigger than other plants in the garden and longer-lived. Unlike most flowers, they do not wither and die down every year. Their grand architecture stands comparatively unchanged in the garden at every season, exemplifying the eternal and the transient together in a particularly satisfying and striking way. The Greeks had their sacred groves, which sometimes served as temples without any structure except an altar.

It was Aphrodite who won the golden apple from Paris, and the garden of the Hesperides had its golden apples, too, well protected by the dragon, Ladon, who lay coiled around the tree trunk. We think of the apple tree ( Malus pumila ) as the tree of the Garden of Eden, perhaps because it has always been the most familiar fruit tree in the West, but the Bible does not tell us so; it says simply "the tree of knowledge of good and evil." Often, indeed, the fruit trees of Paradise look more like orange trees, as do the beautiful glossy-leaved specimens in the two paintings by Giovanni di Paolo. The bitter Seville orange ( Citrus aurantium ) arrived in the 15th Century and in Flanders was known as the Chinese apple.

DURING THE19th Century, exploration of the globe and advances in the natural sciences led to changes in the image of Paradise. Christian Paradise, an idea already undermined during the increasingly secularized 18th Century, disappeared as a serious subject for artists. The vision of an ideal world--an earthly Paradise--as garden or field vanished as well and was replaced by pictures of wild or remote landscape. Artists such as Frederic Church and Martin Johnson Heade offered monumental scenes of nature untouched by man as new visions of a paradisiacal world. Gardens in art lost their mythical and religious significance and became everyday settings for plein-air artists to explore color harmonies and for anecdotal painters such as James Tissot to capture glimpses of contemporary life.

Darwin's theory of evolution, with its perception of man's ultimate tiny and transient role in the universe, sapped what power was left in the image of the Garden of Eden. By the early 20th Century, the perfect structure of flowers was no longer proof of a benevolent universe. The imposition of garden design on nature could no longer carry the conviction of man's ability to order his surroundings harmoniously. Wild nature, now so quickly disappearing, began to be seen as the remnant of unattainable Paradise, as Paradise lost. Today, with the exploration of our psychological selves, it may be that the only true paradise left is the image we create in our minds, a new version of Milton's "paradise within." It is an image that nonetheless still seems to have real power to console and delight. Very subjective images in art, very private gardens in life, constitute our efforts to evoke Paradise in the world today.

LONG BEFORE FLOWER gardens existed, flowers were greeted with joy primarily because they were a sign that food was on the way. Men first gardened to feed themselves: Ornamental gardening and the craft of the gardener sprang from agriculture. The Greeks of Alcman's time had the dilemma, still faced by subsistence farmers today, of what to do in spring if the old year's harvest was exhausted: Eat the seed grain for next year's crop or go hungry.

The stern necessities of the garden, as a place where food is grown and work is done, tend to be relegated to the borders and backgrounds of works of art. There are some exceptions. Medieval and Renaissance artists depicted the rural occupations of the months and seasons in often engaging detail. In the 19th Century, manual labor and the daily life of the working class--its dignity and difficulty--again became an accepted subject for artists with an emphasis on the task in hand rather than on the character of the worker.

POETS AND PAINTERS have made the pleasure gardens of kings more familiar to us than working gardens, as we should probably call the useful gardens for both vegetables and flowers made before 1700. (Kitchen gardens as such, set aside for vegetables and fruit alone, did not develop till about 1750, the day of the landscape garden, when cultivated plots were hidden behind walls away from the house.)

Roman kitchen gardens were filled with all kinds of vegetables and fruit; in the 1st Century BC, gardener and writer Columella grew 15 kinds of cabbage. Many writers, including Virgil and Cato, wrote about their simple country gardens, but no visual records of these survive. Described as mixed gardens of flowers, herbs and vegetables, they must have been very different from the elaborate Roman pleasure gardens seen in wall paintings from Pompeii.

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