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Romantic Gardens

Nineteenth century Romanticism inspired philosophers, poets, musicians, and, of course, gardeners. The new book Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design is based on an exhibition held last year at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

The exhibit showcased images of the landscape and the garden during the Romantic Period from 1798 to 1846 in Europe and America

What I liked about the book is the focus on important people in the period.  By reading about them you felt you understood Romanticism, and the illustrations, which came in the second part of the book, only helped to make the story clearer.

I visited England last year and saw some of the English gardens mentioned in the book like Stowe, designed in the eighteenth century, which became a must-see for every tourist with an interest in landscape, including Thomas Jefferson.  He later designed his landscape at Monticello in the prevailing English picturesque style.  The picturesque garden style as at Stowe prefigured the Romantic Movement and contributed to its development.

The Romantic Movement represented a response to the downside of industrialization, considered a blight on the land and the soul. Mass production turned the human being into a machine, where tangible results equated a worker’s value.

The European park and rural cemetery movement became integral to the Romantic landscape movement. They both provided the public with a connection to nature through lawn, trees, and shrubs, often lost in the crowded streets of the city.  America too took up that theme in parks and cemeteries, like Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. and Portsmouth, NH’s Middle Street Proprietor’s Cemetery, at the corner of South and Sagamore Streets, which opened in 1831.

Frederick Law Olmsted chose the picturesque landscape style for Central Park, giving the setting a Romantic feel in the pathways, lawn, water, and use of trees and shrubs.  His ideas came from visiting English landscapes like Birkenhead Park.  Olmsted preferred more naturalistic scenery rather than a landscape that showcased exotic plants, which was a feature of the popular Victorian style of landscape, with its high maintenance carpet beds of bright flowers and coleus on the lawn.

Like all movements in history, Romanticism was an expression of human values. This book presents those values elegantly through the images, paintings, sketches, and statuary that made up the exhibit.

Landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who wrote the opening essay, pulls together philosophy, literature, and art to provide an understanding of the Romantic landscape. The second half of the book brings together the exhibit’s works of art, illustrated in private estates and public parks in Europe and America. Her coauthors, teacher and art historian Elizabeth Eustis and curator at Morgan Library John Bidwell, provide clear and compelling commentary on the illustrations.

Rogers’ discussion of Olmsted’s reliance on the picturesque landscape theory is worth the price of the book.  The book ends with images of his Romantic landscape at Central Park.

When you finish the book, you have come full circle. You have seen how the Romantic Movement began and how its expression in the garden provided, and still provides, a sense of oneness with nature.

You feel how good it is to enjoy a garden.


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