Art review

Nelson's 'Impressionist France' offers an insider's guide to a country in transition

Updated: 2013-11-10T04:11:57Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

A fresh look at impressionism?

It hardly seems possible, given the hundreds of shows on the topic over the years. But that’s just what the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has accomplished with its fall spectacular, “Impressionist France: Visions of Nation From Le Gray to Monet.”

Visitors will find their perceptions of impressionism radically expanded from pretty pictures to an art with lots to say about its life and times.

Curators Simon Kelly and April Watson have gone broad and deep into the impressionists’ preoccupations, situating them in a continuum of French national redefinition that began in the mid-19th century, well before the artists set Paris talking with their landmark group exhibitions of sketchy, sun-dappled canvases in the 1870s.

Their exhibit also offers a kind of insider’s guide to France, with glimpses of long-demolished medieval streets and buildings of old Paris, troglodyte farm dwellings of the Loire Valley, Roman ruins in Provence and lovely old trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau.

And the two keep a keen eye out for the controversies and political agendas that lurk beneath the surface of the exhibit’s many picturesque views.

There are Monets and Pissarros aplenty among the show’s 125 artworks, which also encompass a good number of works by their predecessors — Corot, Courbet, Rousseau — and a wealth of photographs, many of them newly added to the Nelson’s Hallmark Photographic Collection and on view for the first time.

Fascinating stereographs, a computerized flip-book and displays of the equipment and materials that the artists and photographers used further immerse viewers in the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the small rooms of Parisian museums, exhibition designer John Jackson has used temporary walls to create a series of smaller galleries within the Bloch Building special exhibition space, endowing this large show with a feeling of intimacy and reinforcing its division into thematic sections.

The exhibit is organized as a journey, echoing the French experience of that country at mid-century. Tourism flourished, thanks to a greatly expanded railroad that enabled people to travel with ease to view historic sites and monuments and to vacation by the sea.

We see all of these in “Impressionist France,” but the journey begins in Paris, redesigned at mid-century by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann into a modern marvel with broad avenues, gas lamps and construction projects.

Evidence of street construction is visible in Edouard Manet’s “The Rue Mosnier With Flags” (1878), a painting also layered with social commentary (see accompanying story).

The Paris section is a veritable collage of urban renewal, including detailed photographs by Edouard Baldus and Charles Negre capturing the renovation of Notre Dame and expansion of the Louvre.

The changed city made a big impression on England’s Queen Victoria, who remarked on an 1855 royal visit, “I never saw anything more beautiful and gay than Paris.”

Stereographs, which visitors view through lenses set in wood boxes mounted on the wall, capture the urban bustle of the Parisian streets. A stereograph attributed to Hippolyte Jouvin, “Rue de Rivoli and Hotel du Louvre,” bears a remarkable similarity to Claude Monet’s 1873-74 painting “Boulevard des Capucines,” pointing up the impressionists’ role as documentarians of the changed city.

Lovers of traditional impressionism will also revel in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Grand Boulevard” (1875), a view of people strolling the street under sun-dappled feathery foliage.

“Impressionist France” is a record of national transformation that extended well beyond Paris.

In the suburbs and beyond, the destruction of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the expanded railroad necessitated new construction of roads and bridges. Monet was so fascinated by the new railroad bridge at Argenteuil that he painted it five times. The exhibit includes the version owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing a sailboat gliding on shimmering blue water near the bridge’s massive concrete piers.

Many artists were proud of their nation’s post-war rebuilding and industrialization. Camille Pissarro painted more than two dozen views of factories, and this exhibit includes his paintings of three of them in Pontoise, which was reborn as a center for industry after the war.

The Nelson’s Armand Guillaumin painting “Landscape, Ile de France” shows the coexistence of factories and farms, smokestacks and horse-drawn plows. The image resonates with contemporary vistas of Kansas and other Midwestern states, where fracking wellheads dot a landscape that used to be all cows and corn.

Just as striking as the physical changes in the French landscape was a transformation in the country’s attitudes, particularly when it came to national heritage. At mid-century, the French took stock of their medieval architecture, Roman monuments and centuries-old forests, and many photographers were engaged to document them.

The show’s “Monuments” section includes striking photographs by Baldus and Negre of the Roman ruins at Arles, the same French city made famous by Vincent van Gogh, who lived and painted there at the end of his life.

The impressionist Frederic Bazille also gravitated to the south, stopping in Aigues-Mortes on the Mediterranean coast, where he painted the city’s medieval ramparts and massive 13th century entrance gate. Both Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and his contemporary Paul Huet were drawn to the Chateau of Pierrefonds, a 14th century castle restored by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc under orders from Napoleon III.

Huet made a painting of the restored castle, then immediately painted it again as a romantic ruin. Corot, too, portrayed the castle in its ruined state, ignoring Viollet-le-Duc’s renovations when Corot reworked the canvas in the 1860s.

The expansion of the railroad turned these monuments into destinations for tourists, who also were able to journey by train to enjoy the country’s historic forests. Foremost among them was the Forest of Fontainebleau, made famous by the painters of the Barbizon School.

Barbizon painter Theodore Rousseau made a veritable career of painting the forest’s oak trees and was dismayed by a project to create miles of pathways through the park to attract tourists. Rousseau was also outraged by the planting of Russian pine trees in the forest, complaining in a letter that they “are wiping out the forest’s old Gaul character and will soon give us the severe and sad look of Russian forests.”

In their paintings, Rousseau and fellow Barbizon painter Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena focused on the pristine forest, eschewing all evidence of modern developments, in contrast to their impressionist inheritors.

Photographers such as Eugene Cuvelier and Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray moved in close on the forest’s old oaks and beech trees, producing the equivalent of “tree portraits.” These are among the many memorable images contained in the exhibit’s “Forests and Rivers” section, which includes Monet’s idyllic “Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil” and such photographic masterworks as Camille Silvy’s “River Scene.” The image moved a critic of the time to declare, “It is impossible to compose with more art and taste than M. Silvy.”

Mid-19th century France also found itself in a period of geographical change. It lost Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War, but it acquired an alpine region (from the Kingdom of Sardinia) that incorporated Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.

Photographers Louis-Auguste Bisson and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson fired the public’s imagination with their first images of the snowy peaks, a highlight of a gallery devoted to images of mountains. In addition to the framed images on the walls, viewers can peruse a computerized flip-book of images from the brothers’ 1860 album, “Mount Blanc and Its Glaciers.”

Painters, including Diaz de la Pena, Rosa Bonheur and her brother Auguste-Francois Bonheur, captured the beauty of the French Pyrenees along the border with Spain; Gustave Courbet depicted the rugged landscape of his native Ornans, using a palette knife to convey the textures of the limestone cliffs.

Romanticized depictions of peasants dominate a section devoted to “Rural and Agricultural Life.” The staginess is explicit in a set of photographs put out by Parisian publisher Adolphe Giraudon of female models dressed in peasant costumes, the women engaged in rural tasks.

As Watson notes in the exhibit’s accompanying catalog, “as … modern life profoundly changed the country, so, too, did the desire by many to look back on a noble, preindustrial way of life, whether such a past truly existed or not.”

But the cows — which coexist with smokestacks in a haunting 1860s photograph by Adolphe Braun — are real, as are the cabbage gardens that Pissarro loved to paint, despite taking heat from critics about his “regrettable predilection.”

The exhibit’s “journey” ends at the sea, with Le Gray’s magnificent shots of silhouetted ships on the water and classic impressionist confections like Monet’s “Regatta at Sainte-Adresse,” of sailboats on blue water under puffy white clouds.

But the charmers are the Manets. One shows an implausible gathering of porpoises beside a steamboat; another, of the beach at Boulogne, includes a quaint horse-drawn cabin on wheels poised at the edge of the sea. These “bathing machines,” which allowed bathers to enter the water in total privacy, went the way of the bustle in the early 20th century, when modesty standards changed.

“Impressionist France” is filled with such anecdotal details, which help bring the show’s overall portrait of national transition to life. Clearly, the impressionists were in the thick of it, celebrating some changes while resisting others, cloaking it all in the lively brushwork and alluring color on which their popularity — but perhaps not their true importance — rests.

To reach Alice Thorson, art critic, call 816-234-4763 or email athorson@kcstar.com.

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