East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art

From intimate courtyards to monumental temple, tomb, and pleasure gardens, Asia has been central to the development of cultivated landscapes. The earliest known garden—the biblical Garden of Eden—may have been located in West Asia at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. The very word “paradise” is derived from the walled orchard gardens and hunting parks of ancient Iran, referred to as pardis. According to written sources, the earliest gardens in China, dating to the Zhou period (circa 1050-256 B.C.E.), consisted of enclosed hunting grounds reserved for the royal elite.

Over time, each culture in Asia developed distinct garden types that expressed specific social, religious, and economic concerns. In the arid landscape of West and South Asia, one of the most common garden plans depended on a series of interconnected pools and axial watercourses. Chinese gardens were often characterized by carefully positioned rocks and pools intended to recreate microcosms of nature at large. In Japan, gardens followed a more naturalistic design and incorporated rolling hills and languid ponds to underline harmony between humans and their surroundings.

Gardens also became one of the most important sources of inspiration for Asian artists. Most pictorial representations, however, do not necessarily depict what the viewer would have actually experienced, but rather the perception and expectation of a perfect garden. East of Eden, the third pan-Asian exhibition drawn primarily from the Freer and Sackler permanent collections, explores some of the fundamental elements of garden imagery across Asia.