Cheerful. Bright. Sweet. Inoffensive.
That's the current take on Impressionism. Pretty paintings from the past, easy on the eye and the intellect. The favorite blockbuster museum show.
An exhibition this summer is trying to rough up that comfortable image. The Impressionists were, at least in part, it says, rebels reacting to rapid changes in life as the "modern age" dawned in the late-19th century.
Some contemporary critics considered the work of the Impressionists as merely unfinished sketches: anarchic, shocking, even revolting. Others caught a glimpse of what they were trying to do. "They are 'impressionists' in the sense that they render not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape," wrote one critic in 1874.
"Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890" at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., pulls together 77 paintings by Manet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, and Van Gogh (although not an Impressionist, he is an important successor) from 37 museums and seven private collections in 10 countries. Twelve of them have never been exhibited before in the United States.
Academic painting at the time required elaborate planning, with a final product that was the work of many sessions. The Impressionists liked to work outdoors and produce works that looked as though they were painted in haste in one session, even if sometimes that wasn't the case.
Edouard Manet painted from his boat moored on the Seine. "There is only one true way: Paint from the very beginning what you see. If you get it, you get it. If you don't, start over. All the rest is just
fooling around," he said.
In Manet's "The Races at Longchamp" (1866), a pack of horses and jockeys charges the viewer. It's a moment in time, a camera click. The grass track is not just green but many shades of green. The dust from the horses' hooves is not just gray, but beige, brown, and white, too. Strong brushstrokes put the trees and hills in the background in motion. Dabs of paint only suggest the parasols, long skirts, and top hats of the fans lining the track.
But painting such a quick impression could be frustrating too. "People come and go on the jetty, and it is impossible to catch them," said Berthe Morisot, the only woman represented in the show. "It's the same with the boats. There is extraordinary life and movement, but how is one to render it?"
One way was to simplify. "By the elimination of superfluous detail, the spectator should ... be made to notice what the artist himself has felt," said another Impressionist, Alfred Sisley.
These "impressions" were "nothing less than a breach of decorum, an affront to accepted standards of behavior," says curator Richard Brettell in materials accompanying the show. It was all about speed and change and the pace of modern life. "Sunsets, trains rushing over bridges, sailboats turning, carriages coming down a boulevard, horses rushing toward a finish line, gusts of wind, flowers just cut from the plant, people chatting animatedly in a cafe - these were the subjects that the impressionists chose to investigate," he says.
"We bring together these works in the belief that the most benignly attractive movement in Western painting deserves to retrieve a little of the oomph that it had in the 19th century."
'Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890' is at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 9. Call 1-800-THE-CLARK or log on to www.clarkart.edu. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor