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June 22, 2008

Impressionism's Inspirations

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It started in Denver, went to Atlanta and is now completing its run in Seattle. It's the exhibit titled "Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past." The Seattle Art Museum page describing it is here.

From what I read, Impressionism is a hot box office item for art museums. So the trick is to devise new ways of packaging the paintings. The current show uses what I consider an under-recognized fact as its hook: Impressionism wasn't created out of thin air.

That's the good bit. The not-so-good bit is that the effort was feeble.

That said, it's only fair to recognize that assembling an exhibition from many different collections is not easy. I've never tried it, but I can easily image that it's a murderous process where frustration piles upon frustration. An example is the following juxtaposition SAM used to publicize the show.

Lady in Fur Wrap - El Greco - 1577-80

Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier - Éduard Manet - c.1879

Ann Dumas, of the Royal Academy of Arts, London and co-curator of the exhibit, mentioned in a talk to museum members that she really wanted to pair the Greco with a copy made by one of the Impressionists. The copy would not be lent, so she had to make do with a Manet painting that at least had a woman wearing a fur as its subject.

The most unusual part of the show contained a number of drawn and painted copies of art in the Louvre by several Impressionists when they were young and learning their craft. An exception was a semi-copy by Berthe Morisot done when she was a mature artist. The point the curators were trying to make was that most Impressionists respected earlier art and didn't reject it utterly.

The exhibit's force dwindled rapidly in other galleries where thematic juxtapositions with (mostly) 17th and 18th century paintings were placed. The themes included landscapes, nudes and children -- common grist for painters before and since the Impressionists. In other words, no big deal.

To me the key painting of the show was this:

A Young Woman Reading - Jean-Honoré Fragonard - 1776

Its significance was was largely ignored in the little plaque next to it, though it might have been featured in the recording doohickey some viewers opt to cart around.

This Fragonard has to be seen in person. The various reproductions of it in the museum store (posters, postcards, the exhibit catalog, etc.) as well as the one shown above don't capture the color of the original. The red-orange areas on the subject's face are much stronger than what you see here. The cool areas of the face are a strong greenish-blue. The brushwork is bold. Even though one might call it proto-Fauve given its coloration, it's probably closer to Impressionism. Lacking are broken color and short brush strokes that Monet and Pissaro might have used. Hell -- it's practically an Impressionist work done a century early.

This is, to my mind, the main weakness of the show. Rather than showing a Renoir nude next to one painted years before by another artist, it might have been better to compare Impressionist paintings to brightly-colored, boldly-brushed paintings from the two or three decades before Impressionism is considered to have begun (probably 1870, plus or minus a few years). One such source is Italy's Macchiaioli. who I wrote about here. Some of these artists as well as others in the same time frame were producing works that were brighter and freer than Manet, Degas and the early Caillebotte generally did.

I would dearly love to see an exhibit that focuses sharply on the period 1855-75, say, and that gives special consideration to technique and color usage. That approach should shed light on the true roots of Impressionism.



posted by Donald at June 22, 2008


Whenever I read, and I've read it many many times, that this or that artist was a precursor of Impressionism, it gets my goat.

Take the Barbizon School: Millet, Corot, Theodore Rousseau and Daubigny. Each one a major figure in art history in his own right. And yet, how often have I heard the Barbizon School dismissed as a mere precursor to the Impressionists. As if pure plein-air painting was the goal, the ne plus ultra that all of 19th century art was striving to arrive at.

As much was lost when Impression finally triumphed as THE approved method of painting as was gained. It's true that the Barbizon painters, for the mostpart, strove for fidelity in their paintings of forest and field. But every one of them would have been scandalized to be assessed merely as an accurate eye, which was not the case with Monet, the quintessential Impressionist, who boasted (very much a man of the latter 19th century in this) of his "scientific" series of views of haystacks or poplars.

A painting like Millet's SPRING was simply unaccessable to Impressionists, not only because of the multiple evanescent weather effects that he combined in that one picture but because his attempt, to capture the essence of spring, was something they had abjured when they consciously demoted themselves to 2nd class citizens of the 19th century, scientific painters, placing the spirit of the age above their eternal artistic task.

Posted by: ricpic on June 22, 2008 3:07 PM

Turner: why not just show Turner?

Posted by: dearieme on June 22, 2008 6:13 PM

I always thought there is something wrong with anatomy of the seater: it looks like the neck and the head were taken from a girl of 17 and stitched on the torso and shoulders of a women of 35. And the neck itself is longer than is usual for her body type.

But of course, it is so much like Fragonard (and his time)- to leave us in a piquant uncertainty: are her cheeks flushing from the book she's reading so daintily or it's just a reflection of the saffron dress?

Posted by: Tatyana on June 22, 2008 7:45 PM

Constable's the chap the Impressionists went gaga over, dearieme, more so than Turner.

I noticed that too, Tat. The neck's too long. But she's zaftig. So all is forgiven.

Posted by: ricpic on June 23, 2008 12:03 AM

ricpic, I agree about the Barbizon school and its achievements.

But I can't agree with you and Tatyana about the Fragonard. Though her neck is a little long, I don't think she's "zaftig" or that she has a 35-year-old's body. I think her arm looks heavy because she's wearing padded sleeves (for the cold? it's a winter dress I think), and her bosom looks full because of tight corseting and padding combined.

Posted by: alias clio on June 23, 2008 8:43 AM

Another objection to Turner, on second thoughts, is that he couldn't really do people. But I used to look at the Vaughn Bequest Turner watercolours every January, and they seemd very precursor-of-Impressionism to my untutored eyes.

Posted by: dearieme on June 23, 2008 9:20 AM

Regarding the neck issue, some people do have a really long neck -- or hardly any neck, for that matter. My wife has a long neck; it's about the same as the one Fragonard painted. The rest of his subject does seem heavy to me. But clio might be right; I know nearly nothing about late 18th C clothing construction.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 23, 2008 9:52 AM

For a padded winter dress it's suspiciously low-cut and open. For a cold season weather the neck, breast, shoulders and torso are the parts that's usually get protected more than arms. Even with 18th century habit of revealing decolette (sp?), the seater seems to be dressed informally, for home, so there is no need for additional padding. Also, as seen here, it was customary to wear layers for protecting one's shoulders (i.e. - shawls), rather than make one's arms look like sausages. Yes, there was a sub-period of voluminious sleeves - but they were puffed into series of "balls" rather than uniformly padded; it looks like the fashion was a leftover from the previous epoch.

The silluette of the times was an asymmetrical hourglass: oval top with emphasis on the breasts, narrow waist and exhagerratedly wide bottom. The thick arms would ruin that concept.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 23, 2008 10:58 AM

Tatyana, I don't doubt that you're right as a general rule about the clothing of that time, but there is something about that particular sleeve - perhaps the way it is rumpled - that looks as if it were stuffed with cloth or wool immediately under its surface, rather than flesh. I agree that it makes the wearer's arm look sausage-like.

The dress's neckline is filled in with an old-fashioned starched pleated collar, and, it seems, a gauzy fichu, (or you'd see more of a flesh-tone at the decollete, surely?), so there's a great deal of fabric for a summer dress.

Posted by: alias clio on June 23, 2008 3:50 PM

I don't think there is a fichu present; the light falling on near-horizontal surfaces make them look almost white. Her breast and hand are seen more or less on the same angle - and both are of whitish tone. The same modeling is done for the cushion the seater leans on: where the light hits it on near-0deg angle, it's almost chalky-violet, while the rest of the fabric - rusty ocher/terracotta.

But this whole discussion went way off the post's subject, I'm afraid, and I don't want the author to get an impression that his main point went unnoticed.

Donald, I'm reading reports from Moscow International Film Festival (some of the jury and press members have their own blogs...) and one film in particular, "The simple heart", that was shown there yesterday, was described along the lines you write about in this post. The scenography and aesthetics of it, in costumes and props, are said to be as if taken from paintings by "undeservedly undervalued" Barbizon school, Corot, Millet, etc.
I wonder would it be possible to see it in American theaters, or maybe even on DVD, after the festival.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 23, 2008 6:18 PM

Is no one going to comment on "Lady in a Fur Wrap"? Like all El Greco it is remarkably stylized, and yet what essential female qualities he has captured. There is a long-standing rumor that the lady in question was the mother of El Greco's love-child. I like that rumor. In any event, it is a very tender image.

It's possible that if I had to choose one painter to look at for the rest of my life I'd choose El Greco.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2008 10:23 PM

Interesting discussion here, and comments on the Fragonard. If one must assume that a painting of a girl reading is an absolutely 'true' portrayal of that person, rather than a construction based on a model and the painter's fanciful interpretation one treads on some quick-sand.
yes, the 'girl' has a long neck. I have painted women with lush figures and improbably long necks - it is as if a woman was designed by a committee where members lobbied for certain proportions of limbs, weight, etc. As for Zaftig young women, they come with such a wide range of variety in proportions, that when discussing a painting like this commenters are merely stating their own aesthetic preferences.
i, for one, find the portrait sympathetic and beautiful - in the amazing use of cool and warm contrast, decorum; however I do take exception to the aesthetized flourish with which her hand holding the book is designed. it seems fussy and excessive, but i do understand that convention required young women of a certain class to be represented with idealized features. Yes, she could look voluptuous and capable, but she also must appear a bit of a precious bon-bon; not ham-fisted. G

Posted by: Gabriella on June 24, 2008 12:40 AM

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