Julius Kronberg, In the Garden at Villa Garnier, 1888. Watercolour, 56 x 36 cm.
Throughout the late nineteenth century Julius Kronberg (1850–1921) was one of Sweden’s most revered artists of his generation, where his popularity reportedly produced long queues in order to see his exhibited works. A graduate of the prestigious Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, he was well acquainted with other famous Swedish artists such as Georg Pauli, Richard Bergh and HRH Prince Eugen. The artist had a keen interest in theology, exploring both mythological and biblical themes in his works. In this rare contrast to his usual repertoire, the striking watercolour painting In the Garden at Villa Garnier depicts a loving portrait of his young family, revealing the warm- hearted nature of this largely forgotten artist.
By the time Julius Kronberg had begun In the Garden at Villa Garnier, the artist had lived in Rome for over ten years. However, in 1888, the artist decided to return to Stockholm with his wife Ellen Scholander and their young daughter Margherita. In this work, we can assume that the figure in the foreground is Ellen, and standing at the far left corner of the terrace is their nanny holding Margherita. It is evident through both Ellen’s wistful gaze towards the ocean view as well as the flourishing flora that the couple's life in Italy was marked by quietude and tranquility, having left the unforgiving and harsh Swedish winters behind. Moreover, the two figures are formally dressed as if ready to depart, with Ellen looking somewhat hesitant to leave. As it is one of his last works painted in Italy, this watercolour could be interpreted as Kronberg’s final farewell to his second home.
The work is set in the garden of an Italian villa in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera that was once owned by the renowned architect Charles Garnier. He is perhaps best known as the man behind the iconic Opéra Garnier in Paris, which most notably became the backdrop of many famous impressionist works by artists such as Degas and Renoir. Villa Charles Garnier, which can still be visited today, is a stunning stately home overlooking the majestic Ligurian sea. However, it is the artist’s wife who is above all the central focus of the watercolour painting. Having married just the previous year, she would go on to have a meaningful and grounding presence in Kronberg’s life. Originally from the provincial town of Karlskrona, the recent breakthrough of the reserved artist had thrust him into the elite social scene of the newly minted bourgeoisie, rendering him somewhat without a sense of belonging. Ellen, not only cemented his place among the upper echelons of society thanks to her own middle-class background, but also documented his work and supported him throughout his long-lasting career.
During his time in Italy, Kronberg began to paint with a brighter, lighter-toned colour palette, and it is widely considered to be his best period. The careful observation of how the powerful Mediterranean sun delicately shimmers throughout the composition, for example, is a testament to Kronberg’s skill in capturing natural light. According to archival documents, this artwork was the last of four paintings he had completed in 1888. One of these four works was The Queen of Sheba, praised as Kronberg’s chef-d’oevre. This painting in particular earned him his fame both at home and abroad, having exhibited the large oriental painting at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm the same year.
Furthermore, the palm leaves that frame Ellen’s figure is in fact a recurring motif in Kronberg’s works. The decorative plant has a prominent place in the foreground, such as in this painting as well as The Queen of Sheba, adding a theatrical and lively element to the composition. The exotic shape of the palm leaf is not only typically associated with warmer climes, but equally with the nineteenth-century Western infatuation with Orientalism. A by-product of European colonial rule, orientalist painters such as Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) hugely popularised this art movement. Kronberg’s interest in the subject is therefore emblematic of his time and was most likely cultivated during his travels to both Egypt and Tunisia in order to further his arts education.
In accordance with the thematic elements of the artist’s body of work, painted palm leaves have been added to the wooden frame of In the Garden at Villa Garnier, a nod to Kronberg’s evident allure for tropical motifs as well as the seductive exoticism of foreign lands.