Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape, wrote French journalist and critic Louis Leroy after he encountered Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” in an exhibition in 1874. In his negative review, Leroy went on to label most of the works in the show impressions with the intent of highlighting what he perceived to be their lack of finish.
The term stuck. Ironically, however, the artists represented in the exhibition – Monet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne and Morisot – adopted the name impressionist and wore it as a badge of honor. Coincidently enough, works by all six of these painters, long associated with one of the most influential movements in modern art, are included in the latest blockbuster show at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Entitled “Impressionism: From Monet to Matisse,” the show contains 55 works of art that CMA chief curator Will South regards as the stars of the permanent collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis. By special loan arrangement with the Dixon Gallery, all are on view at the Columbia Museum of Art until April 21.
Visitors to this special exhibition in the museum’s first-floor galleries are immediately confronted with the question: what makes an impressionist painting impressionist? Is it the artist’s fascination with outdoor color and light? The impressionist painters wanted to capture the energy and intensity of a fleeting moment. Is it the subject matter? The impressionist painters were noteworthy for their refusal to adopt the mythological, biblical and historical subjects of the traditional artists of the day; they wanted to immerse themselves in modern life. Is it the quick process of paint application? The answer lies in an affirmative response to all three questions.
Monet, the artist most associated with the movement, once commented, “When you go out to paint [out into the world around you], try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own nave impression of the scene before you.” As a fitting example of how the artist followed his own advice, consider Monet’s “Village Street” (1869-71) in the current show. With its sky defined by blue and white daubs of paint, its tree-lined horizon and receding thoroughfare outlined in smudges and streaks of green and brown, it is the embodiment of Monet’s dictum.
Furthermore, as indicated by the reference to Henri Matisse in the title of this exhibition, the exhibition also contains works by post-impressionist masters George Seurat and Henri-Edmond Cross who took impressionist innovations in new directions. Still others represented in this show sometimes adopted an impressionist approach when the circumstances were appropriate. Consider, in this regard, the work of one of my favorite artists, John Singer Sargent, who is best known for his stunning, bravado portraits of the rich and famous at the turn of the 20th century. When he was working outside of his studio, sketching outdoors in paint or watercolor as is the case with his marvelous 1880 oil entitled “Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola,” Sargent used the same rapidly applied brushwork of his impressionist counterparts.
What results is an apparently spontaneous rendering of Subercaseaux, a Chilean diplomat and amateur artist, in the stern of the vessel, peering up at Sargent from under his bowler hat, pausing momentarily from his own sketching the two men were presumably trying to capture images of each other as they floated on the Venetian canal. The shadowy interior of the canopied gondola contrasts sharply with the light-dappled water and sun-drenched faade glimpsed over the left shoulder of the seated figure.
The Columbia Museum of Art is open six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. Call (803) 799-2810 or visit columbiamuseum.org for information regarding hours and admission to this special exhibition. A guided tour of the exhibition is available each Saturday at 1 p.m.; this is included with the price of that day’s admission. Group tours with a private guide and lunch can be arranged by calling (803) 343-2163 or sending a request on behalf of your club or organization to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Carolina Trustee Professor, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press) is available at local outlets and online.