Indoor Gardens

510991

06/05/2021 - 06/03/2022

Interest in plants and the study of plant life must surely be as old as the human race itself. The first botanical gardens in Europe were created in universities and private homes in the Early Modern Era. In some cases, they were extensions of the famous cabinets of curiosities, with their accumulations of truly extraordinary items all arranged in meticulous order. These were the fruits of a new relationship with objects, of the discovery and trade voyages that characterised the development of the European empires and of their diplomatic networks. The 16th and 17th centuries likewise saw the birth and development of a trade in exotic plants; the speculative frenzy over tulip bulbs in the 17th century that left many people in the Netherlands in financial ruin remains one of the most absurd episodes of this story. Having rare and expensive plants enhanced the prestige of elite social groups, as well as the status of a middle class that was finding its place in the sun.

The Société de Flore de Bruxelles was founded in Brussels in 1822. Its leading figures were, indeed, aristocrats and wealthy middle classes citizens, with local horticulturalists having only a secondary status. A number of commercial firms appeared just as these types of association were emerging; there, plant producers and enthusiasts often rubbed shoulders with one another. Good examples of this are the Société Royale Linnéenne (founded in 1835), which was more democratic in spirit, and the Société d’Horticulture et d’Agriculture de Schaerbeek (1878). Many similar organisations were established; they punctuated social life in Brussels with their exhibitions and competitions, held throughout the 19th century and into the following era. During this time, elite groups were settling in areas around the capital (in the famous “faubourgs” such as Schaerbeek and Evere, which were to remain municipalities for a long period). They were keen to escape the noise, smells and dirt of the city, and to establish their own “places in the country”; for the most part, these were equipped with hothouses, even if they were only used to grow fruit and vegetables.

Since horticulture owed its prosperity, for a few decades, to a clientele avid for rarities imported directly from the Tropics, the issue of heating became a major concern. Wood stoves had to be kept burning during the long winter months. Another clear sign of that era’s fixation with plants was the emergence of a legion of gardeners, a profession which was soon to have its own State-run training schools, established in 1849. Winter gardens also became a very widespread presence in the latter half of the 19th century. On reflection, the gardens and structures made of iron (or wood) and glass illustrated the diametrically opposed attitudes simultaneously held by the bourgeoisie. In a positivist mode, the middle classes sought to control nature in the intellectual and practical sense, yet at the same time they could not help giving way to Romantic evocations of the wild natural world, particularly through travel narratives.

As a consequence of these developments, the 19th century also witnessed a boom experienced by the Belgian horticultural industry and was a golden era for the naturalists and collectors paid by the latter. This was a period when people armed themselves with instruction manuals to guide their observations and collection building activities, and when transport crates (finally!) ensured a better survival rate for plants collected from the other end of the earth. Works such as the multi-volume Le Dictionnaire pratique d’Horticulture et de Jardinage by G. Nicholson and S. Mottet were translated, updated and adapted to our climates, practices, etc., and became bestsellers, while the great horticultural companies, in particular, published innumerable catalogues and splendid, very richly illustrated periodicals intended for a wealthy clientele. The Société française des Chrysanthémistes even published a two-volume Répertoire de couleurs, in the form of a colour survey, in 1905. The plant kingdom and the fine arts consequently enjoyed an interesting partnership that favoured the genesis of Art Nouveau.

Although they had been appreciated by art enthusiasts from the outset, it was centuries before flower paintings (that is, images of bouquets!) were recognised as worthy of interest. Members of the Academy felt nothing but contempt for the “minor painters” of “inanimate objects”. Furthermore, the painting of such subjects was seen as an activity for women: copyists, colourists of serially-produced items and female calendar artists. The revival of interest in floral compositions was mainly announced through the abundance of literature and exhibitions that proliferated in the late 19th century, with the Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements. The floral motif was developed in vast decorative compositions. It was no longer a sub-category undermined by the all-powerful dominance of history painting. New life was breathed into subjects in a society that was gradually opening to less affluent classes – the magnificent bouquet in Manet’s Olympia comes to mind.

The permanent introduction of greenery into people’s homes is revealing, as it shows us the connection that industrialised society forges with nature. Tending to plants is an uplifting and calming activity; instead of succumbing to the lure of nightlife, why not stay home and cultivate one’s plants? Although it is often neglected by art history, this phenomenon provides us with a vital key to understanding the aesthetic development of interiors during that period.

With the support of :
Plantentuin Meise
Africa Museum
Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
Denis Diagre-Vanderpelen
Région Bruxelles Capitale
Loterie Nationale

In dialogue with the works of :
Lucie Collot
Marie-Jo Lafontaine

Practical information