The Art and Life of the Landscape, from Cézanne to Capability Brown

By Stuart Mitchner

When the weather was gloomy and the mood was right, I could see a Cézanne painting in our backyard. This minor miracle was due not to any mortal painter or landscaper but to the mighty forces that formed the Princeton Ridge, which we have been living on for thirty years. Thanks to some long-long-ago geological turbulence, the makers of the Ridge deposited an immense boulder smack in the middle of the yard, forming a focal point for painterly fantasies. Half a year ago an ash tree was growing out of a cleft in the boulder, creating an effect not unlike the tree-in-rock formation in the right foreground of Cézanne’s Rocks—Forest of Fontainebleau, of which Ernest Hemingway said, “This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over.”

It was during a 1950 visit to the Metropolitan Museum famously recounted by Lillian Ross in her New Yorker profile that Hemingway delivered his observation about painting and writing. “I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cézanne,” he added. “I learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cézanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, and I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.”

That’s my idea of landscaping. A view painted by Cézanne, described by Hemingway, and with objects in it you can climb over, stand on, or fantasize about. Now that the ash tree has been taken down (the result of age and decay from within), the stump embedded in the boulder has created a new formation, thereby becoming an exciting challenge for our landscaper, who spent time last fall planning ways to work around it.

It’s also only fair that I admit having little interest in landscape gardening or gardens in general. My lack of enthusiasm for planning in nature grows out of an aversion to planning in any form. The sort of landscape I have a special fondness for is English, notably the Bristol Downs that roll green and glorious along the Avon Gorge from Westbury Park and Redland Hill to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. There, you can go from a street of shops and houses right into 400 acres of open country, with rocks to walk over (the way Hemingway likes it), plus fields and copses and cliff-side trails and gullies. Second to the Downs in my dream list of landscapes is Hampstead Heath, where you can hike from Keats’s Hampstead to Coleridge’s Highgate and see all the way to Westminster.

Landscape as Sustenance

In Cézanne: Landscape Into Art (Yale Univ. Press $75), Pavel Machotka photographs sites of Cézanne’s landscape paintings from the same spot, angle, and time of day, whenever possible. Then he juxtaposes the photograph with the painting. According to Machotka, “the discipline of landscape became Cézanne’s major source of support and sustenance.” As evidence, he quotes from a letter the painter wrote in 1896: “….were it not that I am deeply in love with the landscape of my country I would not be here.”

The sustenance Cézanne found in landscapes, Monet found in his garden at Giverny: “Everyday I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.” The quote is from Monet’s Garden: Through the Seasons at Giverny (Frances Lincoln $25.99), a new paperback edition of Vivian Russell’s classic work that compares photographs of the garden with Monet’s paintings of it, as in Garden Path at Giverny. In another quote Monet asks, “How can one live in Paris?…I prefer my flowers and this hill that surrounds the Seine to all your noises and nocturnal nights.”

Downton Abbey’s Landscaper

Sarah Rutherford’s Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust 34.95) traces the life and work of the man they called the “Shakespeare of the art of gardening.” Among his projects was Highclere Castle, the location of the mega-hit series Downton Abbey. He got his colorful name, it’s said, from advising people that their grounds had “great capabilities” (meaning potential). Also known as “The Omnipotent Magician,” he had some impressive clients, including half the House of Lords, six Prime Ministers, not to mention royalty. Although he’s now known primarily for his unique name (which has been borrowed by at least one progressive rock group), visitors still enjoy many of his works today at National Trust properties, including countless Downton fans drawn to Highclere; among the others are Croome Park, Petworth, Berrington, Stowe, Wimpole, and Blenheim Palace. Rutherford’s book tells his story, documents his aims, reveals the secrets of his success, and  is illustrated throughout with color photographs of contemporary sites, historical paintings and garden plans.

Landscape Architects Speak Out

In Meaghan Kombol’s 30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon $75), 30 of the most renowned landscape architects from 20 countries divulge details about their work, including their inspirations and design processes, while debating the key issues for landscape architects today and in the future. Featuring more than 500 illustrations, 30:30 is an up-to-date global overview of contemporary landscape architecture offering students, practitioners and enthusiasts an insightful look at global landscape architecture. Catherine Mosbach, George Hargreaves, Martha Schwartz and Adrian Geuze, along with “the best and brightest” of the next generation of designers, engage with a diverse range of projects, demonstrating both the importance and creativity of landscape architecture.

According to a reviewer in The Garden Design Journal, 30:30 “is no coffee table book despite its appearance and glamour. It should be read from front to back… As a landscape architect myself, the book makes me proud… After 40 years’ experience, this book motivates me like no other has before. It should be essential reading both in the practice and college environment.”

City Gardens

Two new books in the garden/landscape subject area from local publishers are Susan Brownmiller’s My City Highrise Garden (Rutgers Univ. Press $25), and Charles Waldheim’s Landscape as Urbanism (Princeton Univ. Press $45), which presents a powerful case for rethinking the city through landscape, examining works from around the world by designers ranging from Ludwig Hilberseimer, Andrea Branzi, and Frank Lloyd Wright to James Corner and Michael Van Valkenburgh. The result is “the definitive account of an emerging field that is likely to influence the design of cities for decades to come.”

Gardening might seem an unlikely fit for renowned feminist journalist/activist Susan Brownmiller, best known for her 1975 landmark work Against Our Will, but a Library Journal review suggests that the combination works: “Brownmiller writes with passion, humor, and complete candidness about 35 years of gardening on the 20th-floor terrace of her Greenwich Village apartment. Along with weather, climate, and critter issues, Brownmiller also describes unique gardening problems that a more traditional yard gardener couldn’t fathom, such as building renovations and neighbors unappreciative of leaf drift—although plenty of them are eager to share plants and pots for Brownmiller’s urban oasis, too. From stories of the loss of her beloved birch trees in the wake of a hurricane to tales of victory at her garden’s thrilling achievements, the author reveals all, including the odd assortment of detritus she discovered thrown down from the shared rooftop garden above … With a style reminiscent of Eric Grissell’s Thyme on My Hands and A Journal in Thyme, Brownmiller’s meandering musings will delight readers. Memoir lovers and gardeners alike will enjoy these adventures in urban gardening.”

Princeton Glories

Having begun in my own backyard, it feels right to end with two favorite places closer to home, Marquand Park, where I first bonded with Princeton, and the Battlefield Park, where nature and history merge.