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The secret life of Blue Irises

Take a glimpse into the gardens Gustave Caillebotte loved so dearly. AGO curator Dr. Caroline Shields shares the story of art and friendship buried within the canvas.

Gustave Caillebotte, Blue Irises, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers

Gustave Caillebotte, Blue Irises, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers, 1892. Oil on canvas, 55.2 × 46.4 cm. Purchase, with funds by exchange from the R. Fraser Elliott Estate and the Bequest of F.W.G. Fitzgerald. Purchased with the assistance of a Moveable Cultural Property grant accorded by the Department of Canadian Heritage under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act; Acheté avec l'aide d'un subvention des biens culturels mobiliers accordée par le Ministère du Patrimoine canadien en vertu de la Loi sur l'exportation et l'importation des biens culturels, 2019. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/2268 

Since 2019, Blue Irises, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers (1892) by French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) has been part of the AGO Collection. Dr. Caroline Shields, AGO Associate Curator and Head of European Art, discussed this painting at length in an AGO Close Looking Facebook Live talk in early January 2021.

Blue Irises is executed not only as a painting but as a snapshot of time and place. Caillebotte was a man dedicated to his garden, his art and his friendships with fellow botanical enthusiasts like Claude Monet. Painted just two years before the end of his life (Caillebotte passed away unexpectedly at the age of 46), Blue Irises offers us a glimpse into the gardens he and his contemporaries loved so dearly.

As if to breathe life into his subject, he renders the likeness of blue irises with passages of thick impasto layered against the canvas in signature Caillebotte blue. Each stroke shows us Caillebotte’s hand at work and allows us to reconstruct how the painting was made.

“It re-doubles the creative act of the artist,” says Dr. Shields. “They [Caillebotte and Monet] are not only the creators of the painting but they actually gave life to these flowers. They brought the flowers into being. [...] These blue irises are twice created by Caillebotte’s hands.”

Monet and Caillebotte kept in close correspondence with each other, writing letters back and forth about gardening, painting and “la décoration florale.” Monet himself was a gardener, known famously for his garden in Giverny. They collaborated to bring art into interiors with large-scale paintings and pioneered the genre of garden painting. Dr. Shields points to an excerpt from a letter by Octave Mirbeau, celebrated poet and friend of Caillebotte and Monet, as indicative of what unified them as both painters and avid gardeners. He writes to Monet to express his anticipation of a future visit among the three of them: 

 « Je suis très content que vous ameniez Caillebotte. Nous causerons jardinage, comme vous dites, car pour l’art et la littérature, c’est de la blague. Il n’y a que la terre. » (Mirbeau to Monet, c. 27 September 1890)

“I am very happy that you are bringing Caillebotte. We will talk about gardening, as you say, because as for art and literature, that’s all just banter. There is nothing but earth."  

« Il n’y a que la terre » translates roughly to English in one of three ways: “there is nothing but earth”, “there is only earth” or “there is only soil.” For Caillebotte and friends, their work was more than just scenic paintings of flowers. Earth (meaning the garden) was of greater significance than art or literature. Gardening wasn’t a hobby for them, it was a way of life. Dr. Shields further explains that this quote “speaks to the deep, almost visceral love that the three of them have for exchanging ideas about the depth of gardening and the depth of love that they find for painting their gardens”. 

This seemingly simplistic painting of blossoming blue irises offers a deeper insight into garden painting and its influence on late 19th century art history.

Watch Dr. Shields’ Facebook Live talk “Close Looking: Gustave Caillebotte” in full below.

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