By JOHN DeMERS
The name itself was and still is something of an accident. A critic looked disdainfully at one of the earliest paintings, with its bright speckled-sunny tones, its seeming incompleteness by classical standards, its snapshot quality decades before there were snapshots – and scowled, “Impressionist!” The name stuck, and most artists who painted in the style for even a little while came to like it. A few of them never did.
Impressionism signed its name in big letters across the end of the 19th century, especially in France where it first took hold. For only three months starting tomorrow, Houston will be able to enjoy not only its own fine permanent collection of Impressionist paintings but 50 on loan from Washington, D.C. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces From the National Gallery of Art visits us through May 23.
I got a preview tour of the exhibit yesterday accompanied by Kimberly Jones of the National Gallery, whose love for these works seemed to lift her from the ground from time to time while describing them, and insightful MFAH curator Helga Aurisch. I sure am glad the National Gallery is renovating the space these pictures normally fill. And I sure am glad Peter Marzio, our museum’s late great director, talked the National into parking them here for a while.
Edouard Manet was one of the earliest artists gathered under the name Impressionist – and certainly he deserved the name less than his almost-sound-alike compatriot Monet. Indeed, Monet’s portrait of his wife and son featured beneath the headline (a dazzling work titled Woman With a Parasol) comes close to being the most Impressionist thing we can imagine – certainly “more Impressionistic” than the scary Van Gogh self-portrait used in all the exhibit advertising. Still look at this Manet work, called The Railway. The what? Without any train or even a train station, the artist suggests the painting’s title in the steam swirling just beyond that iron fence. For that reason and others, the painting was controversial in its day.
Impressionists embraced the new life of leisure that was slowly taking hold in and around Paris after the pain of the Franco-Prussian War, which they lost – indeed, it seems as though every day is a weekend to these guys. When they’re not at the seashore for the season, they’ve run ten or fifteen miles out of Paris for a quick picnic with wine and a bit of rowing. Many of Auguste Renoir’s best (and most famous) paintings feature variations on the scene above. This one is titled Oarsmen at Chatou.
Paul Cezanne was known for just about everything except portraits. His blockish paintings of Provencal mountains taught us how to look at the region (and allegedly taught Hemingway how to describe scenery), while his still-life depictions of fruit on a table wiped away centuries of earlier versions. Still, there are two terrific portraits by Cezanne in the MFAH show: one of his father reading a newspaper and this one of a Boy in a Red Waistcoat posed classically but rendered with the riot of light and color that was the Impressionist mantra.
By the time Paul Gauguin grew to be the artist we think of today, he’d left many tenets of Impressionism behind. After all,what seem those hundreds or maybe thousands of portraits of Tahitian women seemed to almost come from within himself, setting him on a path toward Expressionism (the name does say what it is, for a change) by way of the unofficial genre known as Post-Impressionism. This painting of Breton Girls Dancing predates all that exoticism, though, and seems to share his fellow Impressionists’ love affair with life outside in the sun.
Mary Cassatt is unusual for a couple seasons, so it’s great to see her Child in a Straw Hat included among the visiting National Gallery masterpieces. For one thing, she was one of only two or three women allowed into the boy’s club that was Impressionism, whatever that says about the time and place. And she was, no less strikingly, the only American. Her work is hardcore Impressionism. And while the boys clearly show fondness for their progeny in the works on display here, Cassatt outdoes them in capturing what a child looks, feels and acts like in this and another painting of a small girl sitting bored in a big chair.
So… It’s a safe bet Van Gogh sells tickets – especially since producing this self-portrait while confined in an asylum shortly before killing himself earned him bragging rights forever as a suffering artist. It is undeniably an incredible and incredibly painful vision of self. Stark, gaunt, empty and frightened – words like that come to mind as you stand before it at the very end of Impressionist and Impressionist, as though a journey with art is somehow finished. Yet think of those descriptions and look into this man’s eyes, then picture all we know that would follow. You’ll see those eyes again, in the trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front, and especially in paintings of “The Thousand-Yard Stare” of World War II GIs dying on islands Gauguin would have loved. What has come to an end is the 19th century. The 20th is about to arrive.