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GARDENING : Renoir's Estate Makes Impression

March 07, 1992|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Impressionism is still unrivaled as "the golden age of painting," as far as garden writer/photographer Derek Fell is concerned. And, he says, record attendance at every exhibition of Impressionist paintings indicates millions of art lovers share his opinion.

What few people realize, however, is that the Impressionist period was also "a golden age for horticulture." The same artists museum-goers continue to queue up for--Monet, Cezanne, Caillebotte, Renoir--created gardens just as dazzling and daring as their canvases, Fell says. What's more, says the author, the fact that the Impressionists were as glorious as gardeners as they were as painters is no coincidence.

Fell, who is in Southern California to promote his recently released book, "Renoir's Garden," will be pursuing this subject further Thursday in a lecture and slide presentation on the Cal State Fullerton campus as a guest of the Friends of the Fullerton Arboretum. He will also share some of his techniques for photographing gardens and flowers.

The author began his discovery of the parallels between the Impressionists' art and their gardens when he was photographing gardens in the French Riviera on assignment for the French Department of Tourism.

Les Collettes, the country estate on which Renoir spent the last 11 years of his life, was not on his assignment list, and Fell asked if he could see it.

"What do you want to see that for?" asked the commissioner of tourism incredulously, according to Fell. "It's nothing but an old olive orchard."

When Fell walked into the grounds for the first time and encountered the age-contorted trees Renoir believed were the most beautiful he'd ever seen, he was immediately excited by the spirit of the place. Renoir's presence haunted the garden, he says.

"I half expected to round a corner and find him still there painting, wearing the old cloth cap he has on in all his photographs," says Fell.

And, when he later discovered that despite being open to the public since 1960, Les Collettes had never been written about, Fell knew there was a book here, too.

"Renoir's Garden" is the result. More than a description of a garden, it's the story of an epoch in the artist's life.

Despite the infirmity of age and crippling arthritis that made painting difficult and painful, Renoir was happy at Les Collettes, according to Fell.

Surrounded by a lush garden manicured just enough to keep it within bounds, coddled and protected by family and friends and entertained by the daily activity of a working farm, the painter was never more productive. He produced 600 canvases here--still lives, landscapes, portraits and scores of voluptuous, rosy-hued nudes. "It's divine," Renoir said of Les Collettes.

Fell recaptures this idyllic period through text, his photographs of the restored garden--often juxtaposed with Renoir's paintings of similar scenes or of nudes as luxurious as his wife Aline's roses--and through sepia-colored photographs of artist and family rescued from archives.

While researching this book, Fell also visited Cezanne's restored garden at Aix-en-Provence and van Gogh's Walk at St. Remy, where gardens and landscapes painted by the hospitalized artist have been preserved. He also read volumes of correspondence exchanged by the Impressionists.

To his surprise, Fell found that what the Impressionists often preferred to discuss in their letters was not art, but gardening.

"Really, is there anything more important than your successes in the garden?" quotes Fell from one of the letters. "In comparison, art, literature and the rest are bunk."

The idea for another book, bigger in scope, germinated from this research. "The Impressionist Garden" will be released in England later this year, and early in 1993 in the United States.

Fell believes it is no accident that the Impressionists were excellent gardeners. After all, he says, they were the first artists who really had the opportunity to paint outdoors.

A simple invention modern artists can't imagine living without now--oil paint in tubes--liberated painters from their studios, he says. Instead of depicting subjects bathed in a constant stream of light, artists observed the flickering changes of color that occurred outdoors where light changes from moment to moment. A new way of seeing resulted in a new way of painting.

Chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul's discovery that all colors can be mixed from three primary hues--red, yellow and blue--and his arrangement of these hues into a color wheel was another important revelation, according to Fell.

"Gardeners, as well as artists, produced more beautiful color harmonies after the invention of the color wheel, because, for the first time, they had a scientific basis for color theory," he says. "It gave them a whole new vocabulary to work with in the garden and on canvas."

Two other inventions--the lawn mower and the rubber hose--shouldn't be minimized either, says Fell. They both reduced labor and allowed gardeners to be more ambitious.

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