When it came time for the New York Botanical Garden, among the oldest public gardens in our country, to celebrate its 125th anniversary, it wanted to do something extraordinary. And with an exhibit titled “Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas,” it did.
The special exhibit, running through Sunday, September 11, features a gem of a collection of American impressionist art works, some borrowed from private collections and only publicly available during the exhibit, and an interpretation of late 19th and early 20th century gardens in a conservatory display.
The bottom line: the exhibit is the hook to get people to visit the 250-acre garden. What follows are some of my impressions of the hook and why I believe that — even without the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit — a summer trip to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is both an enjoyable and educational treat for gardeners of all ages and passions.
The art exhibit, located in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s Art Gallery, consists of 20 paintings and three sculptures created around the turn of the 20th century. The space is small so great care was taken to obtain just the right representative sample from the time period. It actually took Linda S. Ferber, museum director emerita of the New York Historical Society, more than three years to assemble the art pieces as well as to convince some private collectors to lend their holdings. Indeed, to justify such effort, the exhibit will travel to the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2017.
Visitors entering the library gallery rotunda are greeted by the graceful, over eight-foot-tall bronze and marble Diana of the Chase sculpture. The paintings and sculptures inside the gallery are grouped by theme, with detailed descriptions for each grouping. They tell of a time period when artists such as Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent were depicting the beauty of American gardens, from those at the artists’ homes to formal estate gardens and the landscapes at public parks. Viewers from the greater Princeton area might recognize William Merritt Chase’s “Landscape: Shinnecock, Long Island.” It is on loan from Princeton University’s Art Museum.
The organization has produced a beautiful, profusely illustrated catalogue (definitely worth the $12 price tag) that contains essays from five experts. The essays discuss and depict the paintings in the exhibition as well as others done at the time. To truly enhance visitors’ experience, the NYBG offers an interactive guide viewable from a mobile phone or tablet. The free guide, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, offers a slideshow, text, and audio descriptions of the show. For those technologically literate (of which I am not), photographs can be taken on the mobile or tablet and then somehow — buttons are pressed and instructions followed — transformed into one’s own impressionist masterpieces. This would be particularly fun if pictures are taken in the conservatory.
From the library one can walk or take a tram ride to the conservatory building. There, one views what is deemed an American impressionist garden inspired by the paintings shown in the gallery. An article in the New York Times emphasized the vibrant colors and beauty of the plantings, as if the subjects in the paintings had come to life in the conservatory.
And colorful it is, with maroon painted tongues, splashed with yellow stripes; orange poppies with glistening black centers; and purple foxgloves, pink hollyhocks, yellow zinnias, and blue hydrangeas. This is a planting that smushes annuals, perennials, and shrubs without concern for bloom period, although the palette will change somewhat through the summer. And while some flowers fade quickly, the industrious garden nursery crew replaces them every week.
Frankly, I thought this display rather uninteresting, disappointing actually. One can go to gardens throughout the U.S. 1 area and see just as much color and variety in settings that are true to their seasons. In addition, though the conservatory gardens were strictly billed as an interpretation of American impressionism, the plantings included many modern day cultivars (only purists or cranks like me would be bothered by this). Still, for those who like an abundance of floral color, this display provides a lot of it.
There was, however, one plant that literally stood out in the conservatory display. Commonly known as “Tower of Jewels,” Echium pininana “Blue Steeple” tops out at 13 feet and is a magnificent, soaring spike of blue flowers. Taking two years from seed to towering glory, it is rarely seen in our country and only sporadically in the British Isles. Plant geeks should be thrilled to view this in all its floral splendor.
For those who share my less-than-excited view of the conservatory display, the NYBG offers many other attractions that do excite. Color, for example, is just a step outside the conservatory where more than 60 varieties of exotic, often fragrant, flowers float among huge green platterlike leaves in the water lily and lotus pools. You may also wish to hop on the tram to visit many of the other gardens and featured collections. Information on the tram can be found in the NYBG’s website. Click on “Visit” and then, under that, “Getting Around.” Just tell the driver where you want to get off.
Here are three gardens that are definitely worth a stop on the tram ride:
The Native Plant Garden: Redesigned and opened three years ago, the 3.5 acres in the garden contain 100,000 trees, shrubs, flowers, ferns, and grasses native to northeastern America. There are shaded and sunny areas and something of interest all seasons. The plants are labeled and since the climate conditions are close to those in the Route 1 area, you might learn of a native plant or two to add to your own garden.
The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden: This is among the most disease-resistant rose gardens in our country. There are over 650 varieties, grouped by theme, in a sumptuous display. All are labeled; new, exceptionally disease resistant introductions are constantly added.
The Seasonal Walk: Just two years old and the work of internationally renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, this 200 foot border is filled with bulbs, grasses, and perennials chosen for their interesting shape, structure, and color. As the name implies, there is something of interest throughout the year. All plants are labeled.
Garden officials have told me that the best days (in terms of least crowds) to visit are Tuesdays and Thursdays. The driving directions on the garden’s website are easy to follow. I have taken trains — New Jersey Transit to Penn Station, a walk across town to Grand Central, and then the Metro-North Harlem local line to the Botanical Garden stop, where the garden entrance is a three-minute walk away. Driving is easier and quicker, about 90 minutes from my Princeton home when leaving around 9:15 a.m. and returning from the garden around 3 p.m. I always plan on a quick bite. My favorite among the several dining venues is the light fare at the visitor center and eating at tables outside.
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, New York. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $20 adults, $8, children 2 to 12. 718-817-8700 or www.nybg.org.