Visual Art

Aesthetic Origins: 'Intimate Impressionism' at Seattle Art Museum

While not the most captivating collection, the National Gallery of Art's touring exhibit offers a good overview of essential impressionism.

By Seth Sommerfeld November 12, 2015

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Vincent van Gogh, Flower Beds in Holland, c. 1883, oil on  canvas on wood, 19.25 x 26  in.

While impressionism has become such a ubiquitous artistic style that the urge emerges to refer to works from its founding days as “classic impressionism,” such a phrasing would be utterly oxymoronic. Impressionism’s foundation is a rebellion against classical notions, and that can be seen in Intimate Impressionism From the National Gallery of Art at Seattle Art Museum. While the east wing of the Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art undergoes construction, the museum’s prestigious collection of works by the biggest names in French impressionism goes on its first-ever tour. While the 68 pieces on display hardly comprise the most riveting collection to grace SAM’s walls, they do allow visitors to get a true sense of impressionism’s core aesthetic and intellectual values.

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Edgar Degas, Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883,  oil on canvas, 9.5 x 7.375 in.

Impressionism cannot be separated from the rigidity of the French art establishment that forced its creation. Being displayed in Académie des Beaux-Arts’ yearly Salon de Paris exhibit was the only real way to forge a successful career as an artist from the mid-1700s to the late-1890s, but those jurying the art show valued only a certain standard style of restrained and realistic painting focused primarily on religious or historic subjects. It was a time where something like Edgar Degas’s lovely depiction of a horse track in The Races, would seem uncouth because he painted the reality of was in front of him instead of editing out the smokestacks in the backdrop in the name of scenic beauty. In an act of defiance after routinely having their colorful and less rigid depictions of scenes from everyday life denied by the Salon, a group of artists including Degas, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir created the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers and hosted their own exhibit in in 1874, which served as the birthplace of impressionism.  

Intimate Impressionism offers a loose chronological overview of the rise and continuation of impressionism. Things start in the 1860s, a decade before the movement began, with the generation of artists that proceeded and inspired the original impressionists, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (whose stage work The Artist’s Studio might be the best painting in the exhibit while also being the least impressionistic) and a gallery dedicated to Eugène Boudin, whose images of Parisians’ coastal tourism (like Concert at the Casino of Deauville) fit perfectly in impressionism cannon.

With only the overarching theme of impressionism directing things, the exhibit sort of meanders along, emphasizing the timelessness of works (mostly made without intent to be publically exhibited) over a narrative focus. Standouts include Degas’s sense of alluring unspoken darkness in Dancers Backstage, simple and colorful scenic elegance courtesy Vincent van Gogh’s Flower Beds in Holland, the pensive pink-haired portrait of Carmen Gaudin by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the tender hint of a masterwork to come in Georges Seurat’s Study for “La Grande Jatte”. The impressionists sense of the rebellious beauty of the mundane manifests in Anonine Vollon’s wonderful Mound of Butter, a painting subject that the Salon would’ve undoubtedly loathed.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Madame Henriot, ca. 1876, oil on canvas, painted surface, 25.875 x 19.5 in.

Renoir commands a gallery of his own, and the works on display showcase various shifts in impressionism. With gorgeous, light colors and soft strokes of the brush, paintings like Madame Monet and Her Son, Woman with a Cat, Picking Flowers, Madame Henriot highlight the type of intimate moments from which the exhibit draws its name. Madame Henriot, a portrait of one of his favorite models, feels especially delicate, almost seeming too personal to be shared. In contrast, the portrait Head of a Young Girl, a Renoir later work (circa 1900), features a shockingly solid and heavy sense of form and line definition which comes off as starkly harsh in context of the other paintings.

Dedicating an entire portion of the exhibit to Édouard Vuillard’s comparatively dull and unaspiring depictions of his home certainly seems like a boring waste of wall space, but it can be argued that those post-impressionist paintings help show the full breadth of impressionistic work. At least the livelier creations by Pierre Bonnard follow them up to close out the exhibit.

In the end, Intimate Impressionism actually becomes a fairly meta exhibition. It’s an impressionistic exhibit about impressionism. The presentation is not concerned with laying out the exact historical details of the artists and their works with exacting precision, instead focusing on conveying general feel of what the movement represented. Intimate Impressionism is a testament to experience over information, which is about as impressionistic as it gets.

Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art
Thru Jan 10, Seattle Art Museum, $25

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Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875/1885, oil on  canvas, 19.75 x 24 in.


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