Stanford Art Exhibit Captures Gardening Through The Ages

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 05, 2003

“The Changing Garden: Four Centuries of European and American Art,” currently on exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University provides ample incentive for Berkeleyans to travel south for a day visit to our intellectual sister community on the Peninsula.  

The title of the exhibit is somewhat misleading. Although there are a scattering of home garden images and references, including an idyllic “small suburban garden” plan by Beatrix Ferrand (on loan from UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives), you’re not likely to personally identify with the household “gardens” displayed here unless your family heritage happens to contain a palace, hunting lodge, French vicomte, English baron, or Italian cardinal.  

Nomenclature aside, the exhibit contains a clever and coherently arranged selection of works—plans, maps, photographs, etchings, paintings--that educate, illuminate, and entertain. It is topically organized around notable landscapes from Europe and North America—Central Park, the Villa d’Este, Versailles, Windsor, Stowe, and so forth—as well as topical sections such as “Water Displays,” “Gardeners at Work,” “Parterres, Mazes and Hedges.”  

The exhibit organizers had some fun with the theme. For example, a print of a 1746 costume reception in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles seems at first glance to bear no relation to the exhibit until you read that Louis XV and six members of his retinue “inspired by Versailles’s formal gardens, came disguised as pruned yew trees.”  

And there they are, looking like aliens at a Halloween gala. We know what to do when the “emperor has no clothes,” but how to behave when your head of state is, figuratively, a shrub? 

Elsewhere is a 1846 cartoon by Paul-Guillaume-Sulpice Clevalier, showing a smug burgher holding a pot containing a six inch twig; “My Cedar of Lebanon” the caption proclaims. Every confirmed home gardener will identify with both the hope and humor contained in that scene. 

Even if you are uninterested in the evolution of designed landscapes, go for the art. There are intriguing oils and watercolors, including three by John Singer Sargent, one of them a literally luminous scene from 1879, “The Luxemborg Gardens At Twilight.”  

Turn 180 degrees from that painting and you’re facing “Promenade in the Luxemborg Gardens,” circa 1907, by Maurice Pendergast. Close up, it appears an utterly abstract composition of large daubs of paint with much of the underlying wood panel still visible; stand back several feet and it resolves into a wonderful impressionistic landscape. 

Turn again and there’s a Whistler lithograph, “Conversation in the Luxemborg Gardens,” 1893. So the exhibit proceeds, showing several interpretations and impressions of each setting. 

Most of the exhibit—which contains some 200 items, but is quicker and easier to view than that number would suggest--examines landscapes designed and built prior to the 20th century. There are a few images of Central Park in later years, and a few token pieces—including plans for the grounds of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and San Francisco’s Crissy Field renovation—which sketch in a modern context.  

The exhibit venue, Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, is a fine small museum (“one of the last, best, free museums” a friend calls it) refurbished and expanded from the Stanford Art Museum that was seriously damaged and temporarily closed by both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.  

The visible permanent collection provides a digestible and respectable survey of art and design across ages and cultures, from ancient Greek ceramics to Chinese jade, Western landscape paintings, and numerous Rodin bronzes.  

I was happy to see large landscapes by William Keith, and entertained to note that he was described here in Stanford territory as a “favorite of the Stanford family…”, “a California resident of Scottish descent,” and an artist who originally “settled in San Francisco.” All true, but no mention of the fact that he made his home in Berkeley for many years, a stone’s throw from the UC campus. 

It is all well worth an afternoon, including a look at the building’s architecture, which (for the most part) harmoniously merges old and new. 

The collection on display is manageable, not exhausting; it seems scaled for a half-day’s visit. There are two floors of permanent galleries in the old building, grouped around an impressive marble entrance foyer, newer galleries to the rear, and a number of small outdoor sculpture courts and plazas.  

The museum contains those ubiquitous commercial twins, gift shop and café, the latter offering the tasteful but slightly overpriced fare--salads, sandwiches, and soups--obligatory in such venues. Both spaces are pleasant, small-scaled, and serviceable, and the café has an outdoor dining terrace that overlooks lawns and a Rodin sculpture garden.