"Provincial" Impressionism: Worldwide Appeal (through 8/29/99)
By Matthew Kangas
It has been 125 years since the group of artists who became known as the Impressionists had their first, independently organized group show in Paris. Although some art historians now look more kindly on the establishment artists the Impressionists rebelled against, the enormous American art public is far more likely to recognize the names of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne than those of their stuffy and powerful rivals, Ernest Meissonier and Jean-Baptiste Gérôme who once wrote "I must repeat that the State's acceptance of such garbage is the sign of a very great moral decay."
With the Seattle Art Museum's new summer exhibition (June 12 - August 29), "Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums," another side of the fabled art movement is told. Not the battles and barricades of their eight legendary Paris group shows, nor the brilliance and wealth of their percipient American collectors (the Havemeyers, Dales, Harrimans and others) but rather the tale of Impressionism in the byways of Europe's provincial art museums. This survey, with its stunning catalogue, is the story of how French art of the final quarter of the 19th century entered into so many public and private collections abroad at a time when national pride and, in the case of Germany, military victory after the Franco-Prussian War made such institutional acceptance highly unlikely.
"Impressionism" from European art collections contains not one single familiar masterpiece but so great is the public's hunger for the bouquets and lollipops of Impressionist art that three regional American art museums (SAM, Atlanta's High, and Denver) eagerly sought out 68 oils from 39 urban and provincial museums in Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark and Hungary.
Like the hugely popular "The New Painting: Impressionism 1874 1886," at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 1986, this exhibition strives to give equal weight to the less well-known Impressionists. Besides big names like van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Cassatt, Pissarro, Manet, Gauguin, Sisley, and Monet, there are nine lesser colleagues including such relative unknowns as Marie Bracquemond, Eva Gonzalès, Guillaumin, Caillebotte, and Zandomeneghi.
Artists like Zandomeneghi, Fourain and Bracquemond, had a much tighter, more visible, underdrawing that inhibited the luscious, squishy brushwork the public has come to love about Impressionism. And even though the new subject matter -- middle-class leisure -- threatened the Victorian-era pieties of religion, morality and military victory, foreign curators and savvy collectors who visited Paris appreciated such petite canvases long before the French state deigned to extend its lofty patronage.
It is still hard to imagine why a police riot squad had to be called out at the time of the Impressionists' first self-organized auction in 1875, but the idea of painting suburban landscapes with smokestacks, ballet dancers backstage, and mistresses posing with puppies was anathema to the French public who repeatedly ridiculed all eight of the independent salons between 1874 and 1886.
While French art critics were especially vicious at times (Louis LeRoy coined the original term "impressionists" as a dig in 1875), others like poets Mallarmé and Huysmans, the novelist Émile Zola, and, later, art critics Félix Fénéon and Octave Mirbeau, became ardent supporters. Instead of calling them "five or six maniacs including a woman" or "degenerates of realism," the new critics hailed their sense of color, depiction of modern life, and scientific sensitivity to natural light phenomena.
The same furors occurred outside France once the works were seen in Berlin, Oslo, Copenhagen, Prague, Am ster dam and London. The English were the worst critics, accusing Degas' "Absinthe Drinker" (1875) of "perfection of ugliness." Not to be outdone, the German detractors believed Impressionism belonged to the "French tradition of superficiality" and that such paintings were "merely incomplete sketches." It was not until 1932 that the Royal Academy in London became the first of any British cultural institutions to accept Impressionism in its epochal exhibition, "French Art 1200 - 1900."
Thanks to Gauguin's Danish wife, Mette, his works and those of his colleagues found homes, first in Scandinavian private collections and then in state museums. Prince Eugen of Sweden was another sophisticated fan who ensured his older brother's kingdom was cognizant of advanced artistic developments abroad.
Jewish collectors were the most open to the "new painting," first in France (Count Isaac de Camondo and Suzanne and Gaston Bernheim de Villers) and then in Germany (Franz von Mendelssohn and Carl and Felicie Bernstein who bought the first Impressionist painting sold in Germany), although Kaiser Wilhelm II's unofficial comment about Impressionism was "Heaven preserve us! Quite unnecessary."
Meanwhile, German museum directors and curators in Mann heim, Berlin, Munich, Bremen, Frank furt, and Dresden were extraordinarily far-sighted (more than their French colleagues at the time) and snapped up many of the little jewels on view at SAM. Forming loose coalitions of consensus with sympathetic art critics and dealers in Berlin and Paris, these adventurous provincial bureaucrats discreetly infiltrated the latest French art into German museums.
After all the calendars, posters, chocolate box illustrations, and jigsaw puzzles of familiar Impressionist masterpieces, the refreshing thing about the SAM survey is the sense of surprise and unfamiliarity. The Monet "Seascape: Shipping by Moonlight" (1866) is my favorite, an unusual nighttime scene. His "Rocks at Belle-Île" (1886) is another winner. Renoir's atypical landscape "La Roche-Guyon" (1885) is startlingly good as is his portrait of Mr. And Mrs. Bernheim de Villers. Zandomeneghi's "In Bed" (1878) is sensuous yet icy, as the critics pointed out at the time.
Berthe Morisot, who married Manet's brother, has been upgraded by feminist art historians over the past 20 years. Her "Summer's Day" (1879) could be the exhibition's signature piece: airy, colorful, and beautiful. Eva Gonzalès, another heretofore unknown Impressionist, is definitely worth discovering. Cézanne's "Farm in Normandy" (1882) was probably 20 years ahead of its time but looks as fresh and radical as even, 117 years later.
It's important to clear out of your head all the old Impressionist paintings so endlessly familiar to us through postcards, napkins, notecards and scarves. Instead, go prepared to meet new favorites and marvel at the enduring appeal of these artists who considered themselves "realists," because they wanted to paint what they saw in a rapidly changing world.
Far from period time capsules, however, these works communicate their vitality through light, paint, and an extraordinary optimism that still speaks to millions of artlovers today.
MATTHEW KANGAS, Seattle art critic and curator, writes for the Seattle Times, Art in America, Sculpture and many other publications.
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