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Review: The Lens of Impressionism at the DMA

by Jerome Weeks 23 Feb 2010 8:10 AM

It’s an art-historical commonplace that photography influenced the French Impressionists. Crudely put, the Impressionists eventually opted to pursue painting’s world of light and color — and left ordinary realism to the camera. But DMA’s new show, The Lens of Impressionism, takes a very detailed, on-the-ground-sea-and-air look at what was a much more complex interaction.


courbet cutGustave Courbet, The Sea Arch at Etretat, (oil on canvas), 1869

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It’s an art-historical commonplace that the advent of photography influenced the French Impressionists. Crudely put, the Impressionists eventually opted out of the competition — and left ordinary, realistic reproductions to the camera while they pursued painting’s special world of light and color.

But The Lens of Impressionism, the new exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, takes a very detailed, on-the-ground-sea-and-air look at what was a much more complex interaction. The daguerreotype, the first practical photographic process, was invented in 1839. Some 30 years later, the Impressionists rocked the French art world. The Lens of Impressionism concentrates on the period between those two events and on just 100 miles or so of Normandy coast.

In this tight-focused way, the show details what happened during major beachheads in history, technology — and art. Early photographers wanted to do what painters could: freeze an ocean wave or catch a passing cloud. But daguerreotypes required an exposure time as long as 30 minutes. Soon, something of an arms race started as new inventions — the calotype, the tintype — made exposures faster. Each offered different advantages (a more charcoal-y grain, a richer spectrum of greys), and photographers experimented — learning, for instance, to shoot boats beached at low tide, so there’d be less seawater to blur the image.

davanne cut

Louis-Alphonse Davanne, No. 1 Etretat, The Chapel (albumen print), 1864

Photographers also followed painters in what they traditionally depicted: the still life, the portrait, the seascape.  Many early French photographers — Henri le Secq, Gustave Le Gray — had even studied as painters. On the Norman beaches,  photographers initially concentrated on not so much the sea but the land: ships in the harbor, the chalk cliffs, the lighthouse. It wasn’t until their technology improved that they were able to do what painters had been doing — looking directly out to sea, catching the flicker of sunlight on water, clouds piling up and waves breaking.

In doing all this, the camera inevitably captured what painters had consciously left out, and painters took notice of this. In Lens, there are fascinating comparisons of the exact same stretch of beach, viewed by both a painter and a photographer. The painters often go for close-ups of cliffs and sand and ships, limiting the number of people in view. But when the photographers pull back, we suddenly see all of this — human clutter.

That’s because artists had traditionally come to Normandy for its clear, northern light and its quaint, medieval towns. The Romantics  (Eugene Delacroix) and the Barbizon painters (Jean-Francois Millet, Camille Corot) started exploring the area precisely for this ‘old-fashionedness.’ But an Impressionist like Claude Monet, for example, came to love Normandy for almost everything (see Richard Brettell’s Monet in Normandy) — for its haystacks, the cathedral at Rouen, the beaches at sunset, the promenades and hotels (below right, Claude Monet, Hotel des Roches Noires, Trouville, 1870, oil).

Despite these long-standing icons and traditions, the region began fast losing any ‘eternal’ status.  After the railroad from Paris to Le Havre was completed in 1847, the Norman towns became fashionable seaside resorts. We see them fill up with early versions of ourselves, that other modern invention:  the tourist.  In the images, the parasols, the pleasure boats, the changing cabins and carts, they all begin to push out the fishermen, the warships, the crumbling old sea walls.

But in the book accompanying the exhibition, The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850-1874, Dean MacCannell makes the provocative argument that, despite their appearances here, these dressed-up French beachcombers are not the same as today’s tourists. There’s very little real swimming or sunbathing going on, for instance. (Swimming — or rather, taking a dip — in the cold English Channel had only recently become a health fad). Instead, MacCannell points to the tremendous political and military upheavals of the era, including the Revolution of 1848, the rise and fall of the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 — to help explain why Parisians would flock here. ‘Escape’ is more like it. Indeed, painters like Monet and Pisarro didn’t stop with Normandy; they kept going and fled across the Channel.

Nevertheless, through the course of the 90 works in the exhibition, we see painters turning away from seaside rustics, the traditional masts and sails and the local church towers to what would be one of Impressionism’s central yet innovative subjects: the middle class enjoying itself.

Edouard Manet, The Beach at Berck (oil on canvas) 1873

The Lens of Impressionism is the kind of immersion in an art-historical period that’s more typical of the Kimbell or Amon Carter. In fact, the exhibition originated at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, but DMA curator Heather MacDonald has shrewdly expanded it. One interactive gallery in the show lays out different types of early photos, borrowed from the Amon Carter’s extensive collection. We can see how painterly they really were with their moody shadows, alternately crisp or fuzzy details.

The Lens of Impressionism may lack major-masterpiece firepower, but it’s full of such intriguing discoveries and the occasional little marvel of the painter’s art. Edouard Manet’s The Beach at Berck,  for example, is a gossamer burst of earthtoned brushwork, the ships like black wedges or asterisks, while an Edgar Degas pastel and a James Whistler oil are both such diaphanous, watercolor-like washes and blocks of color, they seem to have leaped over Impressionism entirely for the modern, translucent abstractions of a Rothko or a Diebenkorn.

Fittingly, perhaps, The Lens of Impressionism features one other new technological advance. It’s the first DMA show with an audio tour you can access on your smartphone or via one of the museum’s iPod Touches, available on loan for free. The DMA introduced its smARTphone initiative last year with a new website that accesses interpretive materials. But Lens marks the system’s  “newly expanded” launch.

phpW4vIZxPMJames McNeil Whistler, Sea and Rain (oil on canvas), 1865

  • caption for fourth illustration: Claude Monet, Hotel des Roches Noires, Trouville, 1870 (31 x 22”) Musée d’Orsay, Paris