March 28, 2023

9 Historic Artists’ Spring Gardens to Visit for Creative Inspiration

  • By: Haley Somolinos

Throughout the centuries, artists have been inspired by spring. Perhaps they feel a creative spark from the blooming flowers and longer daylight hours, or maybe they connect to the symbolic nature of the season with its new beginnings, rejuvenation, and transformation.

Many artists also lent their creativity to their gardens where designing with plants was very similar to designing a painting. The varieties, colors, sizes, and textures of the plantings created an inspirational whole, which often became the subject of their artwork.

Here are nine sites—all members of the National Trust's Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program—where the spring gardens are as awe-inspiring today as they were in the artists’ lifetimes.

The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens (Winter Park, Florida)

Renowned Czech American sculptor Albin Polasek chose Winter Park, Florida, as his retirement home in 1950. The stunning Mediterranean-style residence and studio is set off by magnificent works of art that are tucked around the lush gardens. The gardens are home to indigenous Florida and subtropical species, and it flourishes year-round.

Circa 1960 of Albin Polasek in the front garden with his masterpiece "Man Carving His Own Destiny"

photo by: Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens

Photo from 1960 of Albin Polasek in the front garden with his masterpiece "Man Carving His Own Destiny."

Front garden of Polasek Home entrance featuring "Man Carving His Own Destiny."

photo by: Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens

Front garden of Polasek Home entrance featuring "Man Carving His Own Destiny."

Polasek’s figurative works show the essential unity of form and the beauty of movement. He felt that movement evoked the feeling of life. Many of the forty-plus sculptures located in the gardens were created on the grounds by Polasek after he survived a debilitating stroke, which left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. Yet, he persevered and continued to paint, draw, sculpt, and with assistance, carve stone. The gardens and their sculptures are not only beautiful to behold, but they are part of Polasek’s inspirational legacy.

“It is primarily the emotions called forth by a place of beauty which the artist must seek to convey to others.”

Albin Polasek

Olana State Historic Site (Hudson, New York)

A woman looks at the spring flowers at Olana.

photo by: Olana State Historic Site

A visitor enjoys the spring bloom at Olana.

Flower garden at Olana featuring spring blooms.

photo by: Olana State Historic Site

Frederic Church was extremely fond of flora. Here is a photograph of Olana in spring bloom.

19th-century artist Frederic Edwin Church is revered for his prolific landscape paintings. While he painted landscapes from around the globe, he was especially inspired by the beautiful surroundings of his home that he built for himself overlooking the Hudson River and the distant mountain range of the Catskills.

“I enclose a few seeds which I gathered in Mexico. The most superb morning-glory I ever saw of a heavenly blue–very large but delicate as a spider's web.”

Frederic Church to his friend Erastus Dow Palmer in a letter including flower seeds.

Between 1886 and 1888, Church laid out the first and only flower garden by Olana State Historic Site’s main house as a feature for the new carriage drive approach to the house. Invoices for extensive plant and seed orders suggest Church populated the garden with a dramatic mix of annual and perennial flowers, as well as climbing vines to adorn the garden’s fence and stone retaining wall. This mixed effect gave the garden the name the site uses today, the Mingled Garden.

Weir Farm (Wilton, Connecticut)

Impressionist artist Julian (J.) Alden Weir fell in love with the Connecticut farm, which he acquired from a New York City art collector in exchange for a painting and $10. Upon his first visit, he painted “Spring Landscape, Branchville.” The woodsy landscape would continue to provide inspiration for Weir for the next forty years.

Weir Farm National Historical Park’s historic gardens include the Secret Garden (ca. 1905), Sunken Garden, and Terraced Garden (1930s-1940s). J. Alden Weir and his family transformed the landscape of their Connecticut farm to suit their artistic tastes. Weir had an affinity for Adirondack style which can be seen in the fencing and rustic gates of the Secret Garden, named for its tall Deutzia hedges.

Flowers in bloom at the Secret Garden at Weir Farm

photo by: National Park Service

Named because the outside hedges became so overgrown it hid the garden, the Secret Garden has a dazzling array of flowers that is sure to provide creative inspiration.

His daughter, Cora Weir Burlingham, was passionate about gardening, having studied landscape design and horticulture. She played a major role in designing the tranquil retreat with the addition of the Sunken Garden.

In early spring, daffodils, grape hyacinth, lilacs, and bleeding hearts are the first to bloom in the gardens, and are followed by mountain laurel, rhododendrons, peonies, forget-me-nots, irises, foxglove, and trumpet vine creating a striking landscape.

Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens (West Palm Beach, Florida)

Reflection pool surrounded by live oaks, palms, cycads, bromeliads, and Ann Norton’s Gateway #5.

photo by: Photo credit Capehart Photography

Reflection pool surrounded by live oaks, palms, cycads, bromeliads, and Ann Norton’s "Gateway #5."

Two acres of lush gardens with over 250 rare palm species and cycads surround the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach, Florida. This tropical oasis houses nine monolithic sculptures created by the artist, Ann Norton. She planned the gardens to be a spiritual retreat where living plants and animals would coexist peacefully with her art.

“I have created a mood, combining the sculptures with the trees, planting and birds, water also helps...I hope that visitors, even those from far away, will find this sculpture-nature garden a deep refreshing.”

Ann Weaver Norton

During the last two years of her life, Norton solicited the help of her friend Sir Peter Smithers, member of British Parliament and renowned horticulturalist, to help design a rare palm and cycad garden to serve as an “urban oasis for cultural enjoyment, education, and a habitat for wildlife” (specifically, bees, birds, and butterflies).

Although Norton did not live to see her gardens mature, she had the foresight to develop a cultural legacy which serves today as a historic site and international arboretum.

Upon wandering the verdant jungle of rare plants, a visitor may discover her sculptures appear to spring from the ground. Their placements make a compelling connection between the world of art and nature.

Demuth Museum Garden (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

Charles Demuth, Pink Tulips, 1930, watercolor and graphite on paper, collection of the Demuth Museum

photo by: Demuth Museum

Charles Demuth, "Pink Tulips", 1930, watercolor and graphite on paper, collection of the Demuth Museum

Present-day photo of the garden at the Demuth Museum

photo by: Demuth Museum

Present-day photo of the garden at the Demuth Museum.

The Demuth Museum Garden was originally designed by Augusta Demuth, mother of modernist artist Charles Demuth, and would serve as inspiration for several of Charles’ floral watercolors. His studio was on the second floor of their home overlooking the garden. Charles was a member of the Precisionist movement, which emphasized sharp lines and geometric shapes. His floral paintings were focused on precise geometric shapes and bold colors.

The garden was large during Augusta’s lifetime, filled with a variety of flower beds, foliage, and a greenhouse where she grew hibiscus and avocado.

In the 1960s, two decades after Augusta’s death, the entire garden was paved to become a parking lot. The garden remained hidden until 1984, when the Demuth Foundation removed a portion of the asphalt near the home. The outlines of Augusta’s original flower beds were revealed intact, creating a blueprint for the restoration and recreation of her garden.

Burchfield Homestead Garden (Salem, Ohio)

Burchfield Homestead Garden

photo by: Irene Barns

This view of the rear garden mirrors what Burchfield saw in 1913 and described in his journal.

In this 1916 watercolor Burchfield captures the colorful pattern of garden plants against his Salem home.

photo by: Burchfield Penney Art Center

In this 1916 watercolor Burchfield captures the colorful pattern of garden plants against his Salem home.

“An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.”

Charles E. Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield was known for his unique watercolor paintings that captured the sights and sounds of nature. He often infused his paintings with impressionist light, which created mystical experiences of nature. He was inspired by his house and garden in small-town Salem, Ohio.

The current garden was planted in 1996. The Burchfield Homestead Society volunteers relied on the artist’s journal entries to guide their plantings. He listed annuals and perennials “mingled together in pleasing confusion,” vegetables, wildflowers under the grape arbor, the morning glories “growing up strings” on the rear of the house, and sunflowers and corn along the back fence.

When describing his rear gardens, Burchfield wrote, “Guarding the end of the garden on the east side of the arbor are perennial plants, lemon lilies, flags, spiderwort, phlox, peonies, and golden-glow, the last of which—graceful beauties are in bloom. Then comes the riot of flowers, pansies (dried up from the heat) portulace (in great quantities), hollyhocks, glad-iolias, gourds, morning glories, nicotanas, (Beautiful plants) petunias, cox-comb, rainbow corn, amaryllis (wine-colored seed heads).”

Elisabet Ney Museum (Austin, Texas)

Spring bonnets in bloom at Elisabet Ney Museum.

photo by: Oliver Franklin

Spring bluebonnets bloom in front of the Elisabet Ney Museum.

The Elisabet Ney Museum is the studio of iconoclastic sculptor Elisabet Ney. The first woman to graduate from a German school of sculpture, Ney blazed a trail across two continents, advocating for women’s rights, arts education, and democracy in the late 19th century while creating sculptures of a few of the most renowned artists, intellectuals, and statemen in Europe, and later, in Texas.

In 2007, the City of Austin implemented a Cultural and Historic Landscape Restoration in 2007 to “re-wild” the gardens surrounding the museum. They returned the land to a prairie habitat that Ney was drawn to in 1882. Large heritage Live oaks and Ashe junipers stand among indigenous grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, creating a unique natural landscape.

Florence Griswold Museum (Old Lyme, Connecticut)

The gardens blooming in spring at the Florence Griswold Museum

photo by: Florence Griswold Museum

The Florence Griswold Museum's garden in full spring bloom.

Breta Longacre, Miss Florence’s House Seen from the Back, ca. 1916. Oil on canvas, Florence Griswold Museum

photo by: Florence Griswold Museum

Breta Longacre (1887-1923), "Miss Florence’s House Seen from the Back" , ca. 1916. Oil on canvas, Florence Griswold Museum

Described as a “veritable tangle of fragrant beauty” by journalist Alice Lawton in 1928, the historic gardens of the Florence Griswold Museum have been charming and inspiring artists for over a century. Around 1910, at the height of the Lyme Art Colony, artists working in the Impressionist style lived onsite in a boarding house run by Miss Florence Griswold. Painting en plein air, the idyllic scenes of the gardens featured prominently in the artists’ paintings of lilacs, peonies, roses, daylilies, and other beautiful plants.

The historic gardens were recreated with an archaeological dig in 1998, which uncovered the locations of the original flower and vegetable gardens. A landscape historian created the design of the garden based on these findings as well as referencing paintings and written notes about the home and landscape during the height of the Lyme Art Colony around 1910.

Grace Hudson Museum (Ukiah, California)

The California Wild Rose in bloom at the Grace Hudson Museum

photo by: Grace Hudson Museum

Rosehips from the California wild rose bush (Rosa californica) can be used to make tea and also a syrup for pancakes.

California Golden Poppies blooming at the Grace Hudson Museum

photo by: Grace Hudson Museum

The golden poppy is the state flower of California. It is prevalent in the Wild Gardens and the throughout the local region from as early as February through mid- to late summer.

The Wild Gardens at the Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House were created six years ago to teach visitors about the region’s indigenous plant species that were, and still are, important to the local Pomo people. Featured species include sedge grass, gray willow, redbud, tarweed, manzanita, and California wild rose.

Grace Hudson’s paintings document the lives of Pomo people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of her paintings also depict the landscape and flora of the greater Ukiah Valley during this period. The plantings in the Wild Gardens help in interpreting much of this artwork.

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Haley Somolinos Headshot

Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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