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Art Review: Impressive Impressionists

by Jerome Weeks 1 Jul 2008 9:46 AM

At the Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil, 1892-95 Like absinthe, a favorite libation of theirs, the Impressionists seem to be dangerously habit-forming. That certainly seems the case with the Kimbell, which, whenever it can, eagerly imports gallons of Renoirs and Monets. In 1994, the famous Barnes Collection, with its concentration on Impressionists, came for […]


At the Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil, 1892-95

Like absinthe, a favorite libation of theirs, the Impressionists seem to be dangerously habit-forming. That certainly seems the case with the Kimbell, which, whenever it can, eagerly imports gallons of Renoirs and Monets.

In 1994, the famous Barnes Collection, with its concentration on Impressionists, came for a visit — it was a record-breaker for a Texas exhibition. Three years later, both the Staechelin family collection and the Monet exhibition arrived. Renoir’s portraits appeared the following year, and Renoir returned two years later in Renoir to Picasso. Then it was Gauguin’s turn in 2005 with Gauguin and Impressionism.

So it’s summer, and there must be Impressionists at the Kimbell. The current blockbuster, The Impressionists: Master Paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, is a glowing splendor, 92 works from the Art Institute’s justly famous collection of 19th-century French paintings. But the new show makes for seven such shows at the Kimbell in 14 years. No other historical period or artistic style comes close to that frequency.

Obviously, the Impressionists are box office. But they’re not just box office. They’re a favorite for art museums because they are that rarity: extremely popular high art. They are both cozy and avant-garde, bohemian and bourgeois, accessible yet painterly and theoretical. (In The Art and Spirit of Paris, author Andrew Carrington Shelton argues that Georges Seurat’s ideas on color and light became such a topic of discussion because they were the first application of “scientific theory” to painting since the Renaissance invention of perspective.) When the Impressionists are good, they are works of genius; and when they’re mediocre, they still sell.

What’s more, the Impressionists (some of them, anyway) feel at home at the Kimbell — as Malcolm Warner, the museum’s acting director noted during the Friday press tour. Architect Louis Kahn’s travertine-and-concrete walls, the natural light washing down from the slits along the neo-classic barrel vaults, even the grove of holly trees outside with their reflecting pools: The Kimbell is like a Mediterranean summer re-planted in Fort Worth. Almost anything from ancient Greece, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Italy or especially the south of France — it all seems to take root and blossom in the sunlight.

And for this warm but fleeting pleasure, the Kimbell paid the Art Institute a reported $2 million, a hefty fee that raised eyebrows in the art world. The Art Institute is opening a new modern wing in Chicago next year, and former Kimbell director Timothy Potts saw an opportunity to help out with the furniture-moving and reinstalling by arranging for some of the Art Institute’s late-19th century artwork to hang out at the Kimbell for awhile — and exclusively at the Kimbell.

But to some, that price looked a little too much like the AIC was renting the paintings, using them as a backdoor way to raise money. Warner has said simply that the Kimbell is happy to have such masterpieces here.

In any event, a number of the Impressionists wouldn’t have minded such crass talk of cash. The signal event that united them was their 1874 break with the government-sponsored, academy-juried Salon. To them, their rebellion was an issue of bottlenecked access to gallery space as much as any anti-establishment statement. It was about how to get their paintings to the public and sell them — in a city with an estimated 12,000 working artists. On their own, Courbet and Manet had tried to circumvent the Salon distribution system years before the Impressionists by, in effect, setting up one-man galleries in 1855 and 1867, respectively.

But the official Salon was an entrenched and powerful institution: An artist named Holtzapffel killed himself after being rejected by the 1866 Salon (and after he’d exhibited previously for 10 years). Being repeatedly blackballed could spell ruin for an artist, and all the older Impressionist painters had been humiliatingly rejected at one time or another.

Paris Street, Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte, oil, 1877

But this also meant that resentment of the Salon was more widespread among artists than any particular avant-garde aesthetic. Of the 30 artists who participated in that breakaway 1874 exhibition, only eight were what we’d now call Impressionists: Eugene-Louis Boudin, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Paul Renoir and Alfred Sisley.

What’s more, the Impressionists themselves were, at best, an ad hoc association that was hardly united on principles involving paint or politics. Cezanne, Renoir, Monet and Sisley, for instance, continued submitting paintings to the Salons, even as they worked with their fellow “Refuses.” At the same time, the imperious Degas held a more exclusionary view: No one should be admitted to the Impressionists’ exhibitions who tried to work with the government-sanctioned shows. Partly as a result of these and other unresolved disputes, only Pissaro exhibited in every one of the Impressionist shows.

All of this may seem of purely historical interest, but it pertains directly to the selection of the 20 artists in the current show. The single thread that ties them together is that each, at some time, exhibited in one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions (or the original Salon des Refuses of 1863) — with one minor exception: Eva Gonzales, a student of Manet who never did. Yet we’ve seen how loose and tattered that thread was at the time: Some of them actually feuded with each other.

The examples from the 20 artists do provide a rich cross-section of the entire movement and period: Monet alone has 27 works here, Renoir 12, Gauguin seven. Arguably, the only major Impressionist not represented is Mary Cassatt. Otherwise, the 92 assorted paintings range over four decades, across at least two generations and through every possible genre (landscape, seascape, still life, portrait, self-portrait, street scene, interior, exterior). They’re by Impressionists, post-Impressionists, neo-Impressionists, pointillists, self-identified “realists” and, in the case of Manet and his influence on the younger painters who followed, what we might even call pre-Impressionists. Warner jokingly admitted this on the Friday tour: The title was somewhat misleading, but it would have been awkward, he said, to call the show The Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists.

So what we have here are works by artists disunited by their portraits of dark, urban low life (Toulouse-Lautrec) vs. their quiet, plein air countrysides (Sisley, Pissaro, Monet) vs. the rejection of plein air painting entirely (Degas). The artists have a feel for the transient immateriality of light (Monet) when they don’t prefer a rocklike solidity that points to Picasso (Cezanne). They indulge in splashy sensuality, pretty girls, bright colors and bourgeois pleasures (Renoir) when they’re not offering a criticism of that same, empty middle-class life (Gustave Caillebotte). Their work emphasizes expressive brushstrokes (Renoir, Degas, van Gogh) or, conversely, a meticulously controlled technique of brushstrokes and colors (Seurat, Signac). Their subjects traffic in faraway exoticism and moody symbolism (Gauguin) when they’re not concerned with ordinary, Parisian domestic details (Monet, Morissot) — the contradictions go on and on. Imagine trying to assemble representative works from a half-dozen Whitney Biennials and drawing some coherent, consistent aesthetic principles from them.

After all, The Impressionists exhibition begins in near-darkness with Manet’s flat, somber portraits of street beggars (heavily reliant, a la Velazquez, on black cloaks and black backgrounds, a color many Impressionists later disdained). Yet it ends, decades later, with Monet’s shimmering water gardens, swamped with rainbow colors and utterly devoid of people. Even if we can think of the Impressionists as a single movement, that’s a long arc, passing over an awful lot of turf.

In the Wings, Edgar Degas, oil, 1874-76

All in all, we can find such a show a dazzling jumble, get lost amid its many byways or, thanks to the smart organizing work of co-curators Gloria Groom and Douglas Druick, we can proceed from grouping to grouping: the still life, cities and suburbs, Degas — from neo-classicism to modern life, the new woman, etc. In other words, rather than presenting some sweeping explanation or argument, Groom and Druick take us link by link along the chain that connects Manet to Sisley to Morisot to Renoir to Degas to Pissaro (with a sidetrack to Gauguin) to van Gogh to Cezanne to Monet.

What we get is a piece-by-piece sense of the explosive, creative fecundity of the period. Many of these groupings provide a fascinating lesson in context and connection. We constantly encounter links and disputes across a room or across time.

  • The way Manet’s bold Fish still life (1864), for instance, — with its big, open-mouthed carp about to flop off the table — anticipates the assault of Caillebotte’s stunning, bloody, butcher’s shop grouping of a very dead calf’s head and tongue (1872), which itself seems to point toward more modern slaughters. The first painting is all shadows, smeared tablecloth and wriggling life, the other casts a shop window’s unforgiving light on death. But the painter’s unblinking view and the paintings’ visceral kick are much the same.
  • The seeming fascination with young women silently sewing, sipping coffee or working in millinery shops (Renoir, Monet, Pissaro), all in seated poses with us almost voyeuristically peering down at them, often over one shoulder (only Renoir’s young sewing son, Jean — interestingly enough — is faced, head on).
  • The odd way Monet’s boats on a Norman beach (1885) and his rocky Brittany coast (1886) find later echoes in his famous wheat stacks, the 6-painting series of them (1890-91): He does seem to have been obsessed with that chunky, pyramidal shape.
  • The very different approaches Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec take to the theatrical lighting in nightclubs and performance halls: Both use cut-off compositions, but Lautrec has waxy-looking, sallow-faced patrons, while Degas lets his dancers glow and shine.
  • We can trace Renoir’s trademark love of blue across the entire spectrum — blue-black, china blue, sky blue, blue eyes, blue water. Blue, blue, blue: It’s in every Renoir painting here, except his Acrobats.
  • The somber Spanish influence that begins the exhibition with Manet’s beggars recurs surprisingly in Degas’ remarkable double portrait of his black-draped uncle Henri and Henri’s niece Lucie (1875-6). If it weren’t for the newspaper and cigar Henri is holding, the painting almost could have been an image from Goya or even 17th century Madrid.
  • And speaking of Henri, the lighting and composition of Degas’ painting focuses on Henri’s world-weary but gentle left eye, the eyebrow arched in a seeming question (his right eye is almost completely in shadow). Van Gogh’s compelling self-portrait (1887) has a similar focus, although it’s the brushstrokes on his face and hair that point the painting’s turbulent energies toward that one staring eye. The pictorial and psychological tension make this smallish painting (16 x 13 inches) seem to swell in size and power. Van Gogh’s famous Bedroom (1889), included here, also seems as much a psychological space as a physical one, although as Dr. Richard Brettell told the press tour, the actual room really does have that lopsided, claustrophobic shape.

Literally and figuratively, the exhibition’s big set pieces are Caillebotte’s rainy, Parisian street scene (above), nearly seven feet by nine feet, which deservedly is the show’s centerpiece, and the Monet series that conclude it. Indeed, the end of The Impressionists is practically a mini-Monet show on its own.

The Caillebotte is definitely one to sit in front of and savor: More subdued and realistic than strictly Impressionist, it perfectly embodies the call among the younger painters to capture contemporary existence (and to capture transient light and weather effects — the treatment of rainwater on paving stone is beautiful). Caillebotte gives his scene a scale previously reserved for grand statements of heroic art, here used on ordinary, strolling, umbrella-wielders who manage to make the fancy new Paris boulevards feel emotionally empty and inert. It’s a very modern social critique, an image of isolation and anomie. (Ironically, for artists so keen on depicting contemporary life — “life in the raw, in the now,” as Warner put it — the Impressionists left us no images of either the Franco-Prussian War or the Paris Commune and its destruction. I’ve yet to find a single Impressionist battle scene. That’s partly because they never found a visual vocabulary for it — although J. M. W. Turner, who preceded them, already had — and partly because they associated the military with the government academy’s sterile classical, historical subjects.)

In contrast to Caillebotte’s portrait of modern city life, Monet’s final paintings — his wheat stacks and water gardens, even his shimmering visions of foggy London — seem to dispense with the human entirely. He gives us almost nothing but sumptuous, changing surface effects of light and season, reflection and shadow. The world as little more than color, texture and shape. In the case of the wheat stacks (six of them — a rare convocation), we see these changes throughout a full year.

Sometimes with Monet, pretty colors and fuzz are all that he offers, the sensations are too easy and cozy. Fittingly, though, the exhibition concludes on Monet’s hushed note of meditation and transience . It’s a quintessential Impressionist technique: to suggest absolute, eternal stillness, even as that moment of stillness dissolves.

Water Lilies, Claude Monet, oil, 1906
All images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago