More than 100 years after its debut, French style seizes the public's imagination
By Angela Wibking
JANUARY 19, 1999: Critics--ya gotta love 'em. Get a load of this guy, for example: "Impression--I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it--and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape," wrote Louis Leroy, in an April 1874 issue of the French magazine Le Charivari.
Today, no one remembers Monsieur Leroy's name--but the whole world knows the artist Claude Monet, whose painting "Impression Sunrise" Leroy so thoroughly trashed in his review of the first Impressionist art exhibition. Leroy wasn't much kinder to Monet's colleagues in the show--Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Czanne, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Eugene Boudin.
Leroy wasn't alone, though. Critics in general, as well as the public, snubbed the new style. Impressionism abandoned colors traditionally used in landscape painting in favor of a more brilliant palette. Shadows were no longer conveyed in gray or black but in living color. Neither were the surfaces of these paintings smooth or perfectly finished. Instead, objects in an Impressionist painting were built up with rough dabs and flecks of color that demanded that the viewer's eye do the blending.
The latter technique prompted the witty Leroy to report this little exchange, supposedly between himself and another viewer:
"Then, very quietly, with my most naíve air, I led him before the 'Plowed Field' of M. Pissarro. At the sight of this astounding landscape, the good man thought that the lenses of his spectacles were dirty. He wiped them carefully and replaced them on his nose.
Over a century later, folks can't seem to get enough of these funny impressions. In fact, the surest way to get people into an art museum today is to mention that it has a Monet. If you want those people to pay extra and stand in line, just tell them it has a whole bunch of Monets.
For years, major museums across the country have been staging elaborate Impressionist and post-Impressionist shows with resounding success. The Van Gogh show, just closed in Washington, D.C., and now playing in Los Angeles, is but the most recent example. Smaller museums and galleries have also caught on to the fact that, if you want to draw a crowd, hang out a sign that says "Impressionism." In the next few months, three Southern museums will be hanging out those signs, creating a windfall of great art viewing for Impression-able Nashvillians.
The show with the biggest names and most paintings is in Atlanta, where "Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums" opens at the High Museum of Art in February. The show boasts 67 works by the likes of Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Czanne, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. The High Museum is also hosting a smaller, concurrent show called "Monet and Bazille," featuring 20 paintings created during the period these two artists shared studio space together.
The show with the most interesting theme--and the best venue--is "Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America," opening in May at New Orleans Museum of Art, a neo-classical architectural gem. This intriguing show presents works created by Degas during the autumn of 1872, when the artist lived in New Orleans with French Creole relatives.
The third show with an Impressionism name tag is Nashville's own "Impressions of Normandy" at the Tennessee State Museum. Though boasting fewer Artists Everyone's Heard Of than the Atlanta show and a less catchy angle than the New Orleans exhibit, "Impressions of Normandy" does offer the chance to see four works by Monet, one by Pissarro, and two by Monet's early mentor, Boudin. Art buffs will also recognize works by Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptist Camille Corot, and Jean-Francois Millet, artists who paved the various early paths leading to Impressionism. The bulk of the 63 works in the show, however, come from Artists Only An Art Major May Have Heard Of--and then only if the art major did some independent study in the artists of northwestern France.
"It's a regional show," readily admits James Hoobler, the state museum's senior curator of art and architecture. "These are artists who were creating for the domestic market."
In other words, this is art that was meant to match madame and monsieur's sofa, not to turn heads in the Paris art world. The paintings are small in scale, and subject matter and styles have commercial appeal, rather than an artistic cutting-edge.
The reason the state museum is hosting a show of 19th-century regional French artists is simple: Normandy is Tennessee's sister state. In 1992, the Regional Council of Lower Normandy set up the Regional Norman Bequest to gather together artwork created in and about the region. Over a year ago, the state museum folks started talking with their French colleagues about a cultural exchange that would bring to Tennessee pieces from that collection, located in the Muse des Beaux-Arts in Caen (Nashville's sister city in Normandy). Several other museums in Normandy and a few stateside have also loaned works in the show. In exchange for the loans, the state museum will send works by American artist Gilbert Gaul to France for future exhibition there.
Upon entering "Impressions of Normandy," viewers are first confronted with a vast map of Normandy highlighted by large color photos of the region. The artworks that follow are arranged by subject matter, Hoobler says, to offer a tour of Normandy as seen through the eyes of artists who lived and worked in the region. While stopping short of displaying the works in the domestic settings for which most were created, the exhibition design does place them on walls washed in the muted greens, buffs, and blues so popular now in American home-decorating schemes. Fabric-draped ceilings and a chandelier or two also help dress up the exhibition space very nicely.
Though most of the works were created in the late 19th century, there are earlier works (Jean Louis Andre Theodore Gericault's "The Plasterer's Horse," 1822) and later ones (Henri Levavasseur's "Young Couple," 1951). Impressionism is a prominent style, but by no means the only one in evidence. Romanticism, realism, post-Impressionism, and expressionism are also illustrated.
The painting most familiar to viewers is probably Millet's "Summer, the Gleaners," a golden-toned glorification of peasant life. Millet, a key pre-Impressionist figure of the Barbizon school of painting, created this vertical version in 1853 and four years later produced a similar horizontal view.
The Monets in the show include an early, stiffly realistic work, "Farmyard in Normandy" (1863), that should remind viewers that great art styles--and great artists--evolve rather than erupt into being. Monet's signature Impressionist style is beautifully displayed, however, in the airy blues and whites of his "Cliff and Port of Amont, Effect of Morning" (1885), in the shimmering pink light of "Boats in the Harbor of Honfleur" (1917), and in the moody twilight of "Port of Dieppe, Evening" (1882).
Pissarro's "Bridge at Rouen" (1896), a salute to the Industrial Age in steel-blue and smoke-gray dots of color, shows this early Impressionist moving into the pointillism espoused by Georges Seurat. Boudin's lovely view of sailboats called "Trouville, the pier at high tide" also merits mention. Boudin introduced Monet to the practice of painting outdoors rather than in the studio, and his style marks an important transition between Corot's classical French landscapes and Impressionism.
The show's pleasing visual tour of Normandy aside, however, some viewers are bound to be a little let down by a show that promises Impressionism in its title, but offers few great Impressionist works. On the other hand, viewers who understand that the show is about a beautiful region of France--one that left its impression on several very good painters, and a few truly great ones, at a momentous time in art history--won't go away disappointed.
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