Dahlias – an Impressionist view

Gustave Caillebotte, 'Dahlias: The garden at Petit-Gennevilliers' (1894)

I was never a great fan of the dahlia. Breeders have bred them in strange day-glow colours and given them embarrassing names – like Princess of Hearts, Bottom’s Up and Kiss Me Quick – and thus ruined them. To add insult to injury dahlia gardeners then plant them in isolated beds – in which they clash and fight with the other day-glow dahlias around them.

Then one day I saw an orange dahlia in a French Impressionist painting and I changed my mind.

This in itself is strange because I’m no fan of Impressionist painting.  Except that the painter of this particular work, Gustave Caillebotte (1848 –1894), had never been mentioned during the course of either of my art history degrees.

Gustave it seems had committed a number of art historical sins – he was wealthy (it’s hard for wealthy artists to get taken seriously), he stopped exhibiting at 34 (instead devoting himself to gardening and to building racing yachts – my idea of heaven) and then, worst of all, he died aged 45 (while working in his garden). All of this has generally meant that Monet, Renoir and Degas have squeezed him out of the popular Impressionist consciousness. Yet as a gardener who was also a garden painter, there’s way more to learn and be inspired by in Caillebotte, than there is in Monet.

Gustave Caillebotte, 'Le dejeuner' (1876) private collection.

The funny thing is that a couple more Caillebotte works have since been elevate to my list of favourite paintings. The first Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers), (1875) is a great piece of homoerotic art, that I first saw on the front cover of Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt’s Pages Passed from Hand to Hand. The second is Le déjeuner (Lunch) (1876). I credit this painting with inspiring me to use more black in interiors (and not any notion of black as the national colour).

Le déjeuner depicts a ravenous young man at lunch with his somewhat sour looking mother. However it is the dining room that is the real star in this one. Almost every piece of furniture is black or gold and it positively glistens. The only other ‘colour’, besides a flash of red carpet, is the light that bounces off beautiful heavy glassware and simple white plates – if only I could set a table that beautifully, I’d be a happy man. A private collector owns the painting and I often wonder what the room it hangs in looks like and whether it lives up to the poetic quality of the room Caillebotte depicts.

I’m not sure why the dahlia in Caillebotte’s Dahlias: The Garden at Petit Gennevilliers (1893) hit me like it did. I think it had the power of taking me back to a time when dahlias were interesting and highly desired, back to when dahlias were a rich man’s play thing (they were only made available to European gardeners earlier in that century) rather than a suburban gewgaw.

Caillebotte plants his up front and central but you can see that it is part of a border scheme – rather than having them scream ‘look at me’ to passers by. He let me see that the dahlias themselves weren’t at fault – but rather my issue is with what they’ve become and the way they get used.

my 'unnamed' Impressionist dahlia

It is summertime and my dahlias are out. I never got round to finding my version of Caillebotte’s simple orange dahlia. Instead I accepted the gift of a mixed assortment from a collector then moving house – perhaps a strange thing to do given the circumstances. The key performers are two pink dahlias. One beautiful but with the woeful name Park Princess. The other (my favourite) is unnamed. It has a yellow centre and salmon pink outer petals and could be described as ‘day-glow’, but I prefer to think of it as the work of an obscure impressionist.


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