Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Were You Invited?

This past winter, I took a walk along the Seine just outside Paris from St. Germain to Chatou following the path of the Impressionists. (Click here to read.) I ended the day at the Maison Fournaise, the guinguette where Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted his famous Luncheon of the Boating Party. Standing in the winter chill, looking at the deserted terrace, I wondered what it would be like to sit in the warm summer sunshine amid the smiling young faces of Renoir and his friends. I got the answer to my question in a most unexpected place.

Returning home to Michigan after four months in Paris and Pisa, we stopped on the East Coast to visit family. On one of those hot New Jersey spring days that feels like deep summer, we paid a visit to the Grounds For Sculpture, located just outside Trenton. 

Featuring hundreds of contemporary sculptures, most of which are displayed outdoors in its 35-acre garden, the non-profit Grounds For Sculpture opened to the public in 1992 on the site of the old New Jersey State Fairgrounds.    

The New Jersey State Fair became the first sanctioned fair in Colonial America when King George II granted a royal charter in 1745. Held twice a year, it was very popular with local farmers and townspeople who came to buy and sell livestock and other merchandise. Five years later, the State Legislature banned fairs and they did not begin again until the mid-1880s. When I was growing up in Trenton not too far from the fairgrounds, the Fair was still a much-looked-forward-to annual event. By 1980, however, America's fascination with State Fairs began to dwindle, attendance dropped, and the historic New Jersey State Fair closed for good. 

When the Grounds For Sculpture began construction in 1984, the land was hard packed by the millions of visitors to the Fair over the years and seemed an unlikely garden site. Planting began modestly with 12 Japanese maple trees and the garden is added to every year. Today, the Grounds are home to thousands of trees and tens of thousands of shrubs and perennials. It is the brainchild of well-known contemporary sculptor, J. Seward Johnson, known for his lifelike, life-sized bronze sculptures, many of which are to be found not in private collections, but in public squares and parks. Johnson's desire to make contemporary sculpture accessible to people of all backgrounds led to the establishment of the Grounds For Sculpture.

We ran into the first of Johnson's sculptures over a great lunch in the courtyard of the Peacock Cafe. Afterwards, because of the afternoon heat, we wandered over to the shady, flower-lined paths along the lake. It was there that we came upon the luncheon of the boating party. They were all there - Renoir and his future wife, Aline Charigot, and their friends - a complete, life-sized reproduction of Renoir's masterpiece.  Johnson's version includes another table with Johnson and three of his artist friends as well as a maitre d' with a checklist, asking, Were You Invited?, which is the title of Johnson's sculpture. We walked right in and sat down. 

Johnson's art has been called "kitsch," and I can see why. Still, it is hard to resist sitting down in an empty chair, smiling at your new-found friends or in the case of my brother, planting a kiss on Aline's pretty face. It's just what Johnson wants: to convince you of the authenticity of something that isn't real in order to change your perception and allow you to become intimate with a work of art.

There are other Johnson sculptures reproducing the works of the Impressionists scattered throughout the park. You can even find a version of Monet's Giverny garden at Rats, the park's elegant French restaurant.

Johnson's pieces, however, are only a small part of the Grounds For Sculpture, which has more than 250 works by several dozen contemporary artists. They are found around every turn of the elegant and beautifully-tended gardens as well as in indoor exhibition halls.  The halls are renovated 1920s to 1940s State Fair buildings that once housed exhibits of domestic arts, motor vehicles and small livestock. There are also guided tours, lectures, concerts, plays and even opera performances. 

The gardens are a perfect place for a picnic, which you can order up at the Peacock Cafe. There are lots of benches and tables scattered about the grounds or you might just want to picnic with Madame Monet and her son On Poppied Hill, a poppy-strewn hillside based on Claude Monet's Woman with A Parasol (1875) and Poppies (1873).

For a racier picnic spot, seek out Déjeuner Déja Vue, Johnson's version of Edouard Manet's Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe. The subject matter of the original, painted in 1862-63, scandalized the French public and the work was subsequently rejected by the Paris Salon. Today the famous painting hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Déjeuner Déja Vue is cleverly hidden away behind dense shrubs at the end of an unmarked trail. Many visitors never find the art work, but those who do, like us, are likely to experience a sense of surprise and a soupçon of the scandal felt by the French public.

To see more photos, click here.

Until next time,

18 Fairgrounds Road
Hamilton, New Jersey 08619
Phone: (609) 586-0616
Email: info@groundsforsculpture.org 

Photos unless otherwise noted by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Thanks for sharing the information with us.

  2. Happy to read your write-up of GFS, one of our favorite places. J.

  3. I was so interested about the "Grounds For Sculpture." I live in New Jersey and have never heard of it. I am always looking for new destinations to ride to on my bike and that looks like something I'd like to experience. D.


  5. Wow! I've never seen that! I love that you included yourself in that luncheon shot!


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