If you like pictures of girls in white dresses looking frail and sensitive among stands of hollyhocks, "The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920" is the show for you.

This exhibition, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, uses works created in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th to examine the then-new phenomenon of the suburban garden. It was, as the title of a 1901 book on display put it, The Garden of a Commuter's Wife, an aesthetic expression of women ensconced in comfortable upper-middle-class houses along rail lines.

For the man, the suburban house with its garden was a refuge from the coal smoke, congestion, commerce, and manufacturing that enabled his family to live so comfortably. The wife was the maker of this retreat, its mistress, and perhaps its prisoner.

The painters, for the most part, approached the subject in a French style, while the gardeners and the gardens they painted emulated the informal, overgrown look of English gardens. The pictures that resulted are quintessentially American.

When I visited, the only other people in the gallery were a couple of women I assume to have been garden club veterans. They went from picture to picture like bees, scrutinizing each bloom. They seemed to view the exhibition as a prelude to the Philadelphia Flower Show, which opened Saturday, and appeared to be having a great time - though they did not seem to realize that the show was not really about the flowers, but about the gardeners, about themselves. The women in the pictures would have been the age of their grandmothers, but the culture the artists depict has been surprisingly enduring.

What we see in picture after picture is ambivalence about this emergent lifestyle. In Childe Hassam's The Goldfish Window (1916), we see a woman wearing a flower-print, kimonolike garment in a room that overlooks a verdant garden. The bowl of goldfish on the table brings the green of the yard into the red-brown and blue interior. It is hard not to feel that the woman is something like the goldfish, highly decorative, but trapped in the house and garden where she is on display. In Lady in a Garden (c. 1912) by Frederick Carl Frieseke, a woman stands amid an explosion of blooms. The stripes in her dress so closely match the line of the irises in the foreground that it is impossible to tell where the garden ends and the woman begins. In the same artist's Hollyhocks (1911), a woman's billowy dress matches the profile of the very tall flowers around her.

The garden is nominally the woman's creation; the pretense at least was that she did it all herself. Perhaps the day before she posed for the picture, she was on her knees, weeding or planting. But the pose she strikes for posterity is passively genteel. She gardens without getting her hands dirty.

The labor of a garden is never depicted. Only rarely, and generally only in works by women, do you get a gardener's closeup perspective. In Iris at Dawn (1899) and two other works, Maria Oakey Dewing plunges the viewer into the flower beds to produce what she called portraits of the flowers. Fidelia Bridges created beautiful, botanically detailed small watercolors of such subjects as grass and poison ivy. (Her work, along with some of the other standouts of the show, is in a separate gallery of works on paper half a level below the main gallery.)

The depictions of women in these paintings were initially meant to be admiring, and perhaps when we look at them today and see sadness and constraint, we are applying different values. Yet, it is worth noting that these came from the first golden age of feminism, the period when women successfully won the right to vote and when a women-led movement won the fight to ban alcohol in the United States.

The catalog, edited by PAFA curator Anna O. Marley, who also organized the exhibition, demonstrates that these pretty pictures raise some big, ugly issues. It is clear that they were, like such other constructions of the era as Gothic and Colonial Revival college campuses and garden suburbs like Chestnut Hill, assertions of the permanence of Anglo-American culture in an increasingly diverse society. Bigotry and class insecurity twist through the picture like morning glory vines in a rose bush.

The key figure here is the writer and gardener Celia Thaxter, whose 1894 book, An Island Garden, was quite influential. In Hassam's painting of her, done as the book's frontispiece, she stands chastely in white amid her blooms with the sea behind her, looking like one of your more respectable goddesses. The question debated in the catalog is whether she was a pioneering environmentalist, a defender of birds when they were being slaughtered en masse to adorn fine ladies' hats. Or was she a nativist, whose passionate hatred of the insect and animal pests and invasive plants that besieged her garden actually signaled her desire that immigration be ended and American culture be on permanent English footing?

Both could be true, of course. To this day, environmentalism is often viewed as a way for the privileged to maintain their edge. Still, I think a gardener has a right to complain about slugs without being morally condemned.

"The Artist in the Garden" is a related show at the Michener Art Museum that tries to bring the story up to date. Bucks County was a center of the American impressionist style, and the Michener has major holdings. While free of the PAFA show's often cloying propriety, it is also less focused. All the paintings have in common is that they address the natural world in some way. There are some delights: Sunday Boredom, a 1930s work by Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, shows a couple in a Delaware River cottage turning their backs on the view, focusing instead on the big Sunday paper and their own disgruntlement.

The one painting, though, that brings the themes of the PAFA show up to date is Jennifer Bartlett's Juniper (2010). It shows two views of a small tree in Bartlett's Brooklyn backyard, overlaid with a sort of dish-towel-pattern grid. It is clearly domestic and obsessed over. We all want a little nature, even in the city.


The Artist's Garden

Through May 24 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 10 a.m-9 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: $15; seniors (60 and older) and students, $12; children age 13-18, $8; children 12 and younger and military, free.

Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org. 

The Artist in the Garden

Through Aug. 9 at the Michener Museum of Art, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $18; seniors, $17; college students, $16; children age 6-18, $8; children under 6, free.

Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenermuseum.org.EndText