By Dr Michael Adcock
Tour Leader, Paris
The ‘Colours of Impressionism’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia offers a most novel and interesting insight into an art movement that is already well-known to many. Unlike the wonderful Orsay blockbuster exhibitions held previously in Melbourne and Canberra, this is a more manageable exhibition of just 65 highly significant works, and it is focused almost exclusively upon the development of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism.
The Impressionist movement in France
Visitors will be well familiar with the subjects and styles of Impressionist paintings, if only because they are now so highly valued by museums and are also extensively reproduced commercially. These works are attractive because their subjects, drawn from everyday life, are generally pleasant and genial, and because their bright colours work wondrously to replicate the sense of open air and sunlight. Indeed, there is even a danger that some viewers might misjudge such paintings as merely ‘pretty’.
This, however, was not at all the purpose of the Impressionist movement, and it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what this generation of painters was really aiming to do. Like all names of art movements, the term ‘Impressionism’ is a broad generalisation that sits uncomfortably upon a very diverse group of painters, all of whom exhibited together on eight occasions between 1874 and 1886, and then went their own ways. Once we start to unpack an art-movement name, it tends to fall apart in our hands in a mass of contradictions. Our definition of Impressionism must perforce be – no pun intended – ‘broad brush’.
Themes: ‘The Heroism of Modern Life’
The Impressionists’ common goals were based first on the radicalisation of subject matter: instead of painting subjects drawn from classical history, Graeco-Roman mythology or religion – the ‘noble’ subjects that sold so well at the annual Paris Salon art exhibition – they depicted the modern world around them. In this, they were guided by the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire who, in a seminal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, had urged painters to record what he called ‘the heroism of modern life’; that is, to see everyday reality as being every bit as interesting as some confabulated scene from the classics.
Techniques: Painting in the open air
The Impressionists’ second goal was a technical one, namely, to capture both the modern city and the rural landscape, as well as effects of light and atmosphere, by direct observation. Two painters, in particular, were instrumental in introducing the young generation of painters to painting en plein air (in the open air): these were Johann-Barthold Jongkind and Eugène Boudin. In particular, it was Boudin who noticed a young artist wasting his talents doing caricatural drawings of local citizens, and tetchily urged him to pick up a paintbrush, go to the Normandy coast, and actually paint a real landscape. The young man who meekly obeyed this advice was named Claude Monet, and the rest is history… Jongkind and Boudin are routinely mentioned in art books as important precursors of Impressionism, but this is to forget that they continued painting as the Impressionist movement developed. Fortunately, there are works by both men in this exhibition, and they are of breathtaking quality. Just have a look at Boudin’s Etretat, The Amont Cliff, with its splendid study of bright sunlight illuminating the limestone face of the cliff.
Explaining Impressionism in terms of ‘colour themes’
The Adelaide exhibition is also new and stimulating because it does not use the traditional chronological approach to an art movement, but examines the movement in thematic terms of the use of colour. This is done in a most savant manner, and one senses some very deep curatorial minds at work behind the thoughtful sequencing of the works on the walls. This is one of the most innately intelligent – and thought-provoking – exhibition layouts one might have seen in many years.
Colour theme: Impressionist Black
The first section of the exhibition is devoted to an unusual tone for Impressionism: black. Have a look at Manet’s stunning The Port of Boulogne, a nocturne done from the balcony of his hotel room overlooking the harbour. Look closely and deeply at the paint surface, and see the wonderful, untidy, rag-like patches of pure black for shadow and of whitish-silver for moonlight.
Colour theme: Impressionist ‘Bright’ Painting
The second section again acknowledges that the ‘bright’ painting of the Impressionists had precursors in earlier artists, notably the great landscapist Camille Corot, and humbler painters, such as the genial Stanislas Lépine, both of whom are represented by beautiful works in the exhibition. But the ‘bright’ painting triumphed in the 1870s, when Sisley, Pissarro and Monet attained a luminous mastery of atmosphere, as seen in Monet’s Argenteuil and Sisley’s masterly Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly.
Colour theme: Impressionist White – The myriad colours of snow
The third section again avoids the cliché of Impressionist sunlight, and focuses instead on white. Needless to say, there is a rich array here of important works by the major artists: Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro. It is a delightful experience to sit on one of the circular couches in the rooms and simply immerse oneself, letting one’s eyes travel slowly over the breathtaking paint surface of Monet’s masterly early work The Magpie. As we gaze into three extraordinary landscapes by Sisley – including the lyrical Snow at Louveciennes – we realise that the key quality of snow is that it is not just white, but a rich tapestry of fleeting colours, with deep blue shadows in the depths of the snowfall.
Colour theme: Of Greens and Blues
The fourth section of the exhibition is called ‘Greens and Blues’, which brings us to the Impressionist landscapes with which we are most familiar. All of these works are astonishing in their sheer proficiency, but two in particular stand out. Monet’s Corner of the Apartment is a compelling view of the interior of Monet’s second house at Argenteuil, with his young son, Jean, standing in a secluded space lit by the bluish light coming through a curtained window. The use of deep blue on the parquetry floor has a poignant lyricism and a tonal intensity that are exceptional in Monet’s work.
Equally compelling is Auguste Renoir’s quite exceptional Field of Banana Trees. Renoir’s landscapes generally do have a pleasing, genial quality, but this canvas has a raw power, a primal celebration of foliage in itself, with no attempt to compose a pretty scene; it is, in fact, an untidy jumble of opulent foliage. What has happened to this painter of charming landscapes? The answer is that Renoir had just had an experience that the French would call ‘bouleversant’, or astonishing. He had recently finished the iconic The Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he sold to the eminent dealer and collector Paul Durand-Ruel for a very substantial sum. Exhausted, he used the ample funds to take himself to Algiers, where he experienced the revelation of the brilliant light of the Mediterranean. In this work, there is no concern at all for the picturesque or the exotic, just primal response of an artist to an overwhelming and intense visual impression, with a glimpse of the city of Algiers in the distance, dissolved in a white glare of intense sunlight.
From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism
The fifth section of the exhibition introduces us to another quite magical aspect of Impressionism, a later offshoot known both as Neo-Impressionism or – sometimes – by one of its key techniques, divisionism. Painters such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Charles Angrand adopted scientific theories regarding light and colour, and attempted to translate them into a more disciplined form of Impressionism, in which the large, gestural strokes of the Impressionists were replaced by very small dots of paint or, in some cases, small, luminous ‘tiles’ or ‘plaques’ of paint. Of these artists, Georges Seurat is perhaps the most famous, and we are privileged to have some of his wonderful small oil sketches here in Australia. Paul Signac’s large painting, The Palace of the Popes, is almost incandescent in tone. Possibly the most radical of all is a tiny painting by Charles Angrand, Haystacks in Normandy, in which the solid forms of grain stacks are subsumed in light, dematerialised to the point that they have no mass, no texture and virtually no outline, emerging as diaphanous, luminous ghosts from the white heat of the field.
Pink and Purple: Is there such a thing as a ‘woman’ Impressionist?
This section of the exhibition is a broad church, seeking to acknowledge other aspects of Impressionism, such as the late work of Monet, and the stupendous works of Paul Cézanne. Both of these male painters are by now icons in the history of art, and require little introduction.
It is gratifying that this room also includes two works by Berthe Morisot, including The Hydrangea, thus acknowledging the place of women in the Impressionist movement. Morisot herself used paint with such freedom that it almost seems to fall of the canvas, and yet her painterly touch has a devastating assurance. This is a good acknowledgement of the role of women in the Impressionist movement, but it would have been even more satisfying to see other Impressionists, such as Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond, acknowledged as well. In addition, it would be wonderful to see them listed in art books not as Women Impressionists, but simply as Impressionists pure and simple. Their sex is utterly irrelevant: they are simply brilliant painters. We never refer to their male counterparts as Male Impressionists, so why create a sub-category of ‘female’ Impressionists?
Paintings that puzzle and intrigue the viewer
Visitors might be intrigued to notice that there are also some paintings in this exhibition that are not, in traditional art history, considered strictly Impressionist. But this is exactly what the Orsay museum’s vision is all about: it aims to ‘show us the 19th century whole’, by putting the great masterpieces of today’s consciousness amongst works by artists once famous but now largely forgotten. It is arguable that we can only truly understand the boldness of the Impressionist style when we have looked carefully at the slick, almost photographic detail of formal Salon paintings in the ‘official’ academic style.
Signs of the times: The birth of the modern bathroom
For example, the name of the painter Alfred Stevens may be unfamiliar to some visitors, and his careful style of painting seems to belong to the more conservative tradition; no bright colours or splashy brushstrokes here! But he was in fact associated with a most interesting modernist group that preceded the Impressionist movement of the 1860s, and included Manet, Legros and Fantin-Latour. Stevens was a mate of Manet, and even tried his hand at some scenes of modern life.
The remarkable work in the exhibition, The Bath, for example, is deceptively familiar to the modern viewer, because we are now so accustomed to having formal bathrooms in our homes. But in 1867, when this canvas was painted, this sort of bathroom represented ‘the shock of the new’, and was an astonishing and novel development. Thanks to Baron Georges Haussmann’s massive program to modernise Paris – including its water supply – he managed to double the total length of city water mains and the city’s water capacity, and to increase the number of houses with piped water from 6,000 to 34,000. This utterly transformed the private lives of Parisians. Stevens depicts an elegant young Parisienne luxuriating in the so-called “new water”, which soon came to be termed “city water”. For the first time, bathing could become a regular rather than an occasional occurrence; think of all of Degas’ women, making ablutions in makeshift tubs on the floor.
Another recent development was the birth of the great modern department stores, which responded to the vogue of the bathroom by having special ‘departments’ selling items devoted to bathing. Soap became a luxurious item, and the first shampoos appeared on the market. Some companies began to advertise baths as luxurious pieces of furniture; this young lady in The Bath, for example, has bought an ornate duck-head tap and a ceramic soap holder.
The bathroom had now become a place to tarry and to relax, and had taken on some of the intimate and romantic connotations of the boudoir: this young woman has been reading a novel, and now dreamily thinks of the lover who has no doubt presented her with the flower we see. Indeed, Stevens’ painting has a note of subdued eroticism, and it may be that he has depicted another aspect of the new fashion, its association with sensuality and sexual enjoyment. It is possible that Stevens’ model is in fact a young courtesan, one of the stylish and wealthy professional prostitutes of the Second Empire. These women quickly perceived the attraction of receiving their customers amidst such lavish settings, but amongst the general population this sort of bathing did not become popular until later in the century.
Do peer into this work, and allow little details to intrigue you. Why is the tap still running with ‘new water’? Why is there a little clock in the soap holder? And why, pray tell, does Stevens lavish such beautiful and sensual paint on the flowers, the open novel and the white towel, and then present a quite cool, non-sensual image of the young lady?
There are many more delightful and unexpected visual encounters to be had at Adelaide, and the exhibition is to be warmly commended to all.
- More information on the Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibition is available on the Art Gallery of South Australia’s website: https://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home/Exhibitions/NowShowing/Colours_of_Impressionism
- The exhibition runs until July 29, 2018.
- The Art Gallery of South Australia is located on North Terrace, Adelaide.
- It is open seven days from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm.
- Tickets to the exhibition cost $25 and allow you to pass in and pass out of the display if you wish to take a break or find refreshment.
- People who hold memberships with other state art galleries, such as the NGV, the NGA or the AGNSW, may purchase tickets at the reduced rate of $20, even online.
- Members of other state galleries are also welcome to use the AGSA Member’s Lounge by virtue of a reciprocal agreement; just ask at the information desk.
- There is a small pop-up shop at the exit of the exhibition, selling catalogues and reproductions.
- The gallery has an excellent café serving light refreshments and excellent lunches.