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Some of The Faces of Impressionism
— at The Kimbell through January 25
Edouard Manet On the Beach 1873 oil on canvas
Quoting from Kimbell Deputy Director George T. M. Shackelford, who with Musée d'Orsay Director of Collections and Curator of Paintings Xavier Rey, led the Press Tour of the exhibition, "Manet took his family to … a pretty cold place for a summer holiday [where] the water was not exactly great for bathing. … His wife, Suzanne Leenhoff and his brother Eugene Manet were fully dressed … sitting there reading or watching the water. The painting is remarkable in Manet's art, for giving the sense of being painted in open air and being painted very quickly … very much of an impression of the people sitting on the beach."
"It is also remarkable in an exhibition called Faces of Impressionism for not having a face [many laughs]. And we very deliberately tried to push at those boundaries, to try to make you ask questions about what does [portraiture] mean? Does it always include a nose and two eyes and a mouth? … Or can these two, in their body language, in the sense of how they behave to each other, be, in fact, convincing portraits of the wife and the brother?"
Sure. But then I see essences of face on both heads, way more information than in, say, the next picture down.
If I had to choose a favorite among the collection, it would be a tough choice between this and Berthe Morisot's Young Woman in a Ball Gown a couple clicks below.
This one, in muted, complementary colors impressionistically expressed in organized chaos for the painter's wife, and perhaps less so for the brother, seems perfect, because the farther our view strays up from the two who barely acknowledge each other, the more vibrant the vision and real the world. In nearly monochromatic grays, blacks and whites with a few red and reddish facial cues, and that one, red and shiny white shoe, is easy on the eyes yet superbly constructed. Gray brown up to nearly ochre at the line of surf, then ocean, whose hues become more vibrant as our eyes rise. Beginning with shadowy gray-brown sand, the background transitions up into vague, then intense aquamarines before they finally flash one strong, solid line of black under a violet-gray blue sky, but I that dark line at the very top is frame shadow.
It doesn't look like much of a vacation. No fun here, till you get close enough to watch the paint dance.
Dancing paint is what keeps me interested when another big art show comes to a major museum near me — either that or a local artist like David Bates in two museums in Fort Worth simultaneously, but I liked watching Bates' paint dance, too, though his wasn't as exciting as these.
I love going to major art show press openings, where I eat, drink, talk and seriously inspect art up close and personal for a couple glorious hours. Then I feel guilty till I write a story that keeps getting longer as I study subject and era, eventually learning more than I ever thought I'd want to. All so I can drive those forty miles each way to photograph the most fascinating art in history, and have the time alone in the gallery to thrill to each's brushstroke boogie.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Young Woman with a Veil 1875 oil on canvas
This one struck me as mysterious and softly captivating. We see her heavily rouged and tightly veiled face in profile, a dark slot we take as eye, slight protrusion as nose, and essence of ear. Every facial shape muted along the fuzzy perimeter of the shawl's brown and black plaid. A hazy gray cuff reveals a fraction of right hand and maybe a couple fingers of a left. The barest glimpse of red and blue lilting atop her unilluminated hair and a jut of knitted pink with a little blue knot under her chin, are but a pittance of color among the muted gloom.
Because her personal details are carefully concealed, this has been called an anti-portrait, yet if we knew that woman, we might say, "it looks just like her, and Monsieur Renoir has caught her essence." But he likely dressed and posed her precisely, and I wonder how long he took with this painting.
I selected six paintings with nine people for this story — two in one painting are the same person but I count both. Six are women, because this is a major exhibition of seventy-four works by supposedly all the famous pre-, mid- and post-Impressionists, as well as some who showed great promise then died early — and they are all but one, men. Seemed to be more women in the work than in any Impressionist show I've seen, but that only might be true.
What is decidedly true is that while Berthe Morisot's work is included here among what George T. M. Shackelford called "the iconic masterpieces by the Central Figures in the Impressionist Movement — Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot and Manet, as well renowned paintings by the artists who proceeded them, such as Monet … [and] … those who followed them, such as Gauguin and Van Gogh," she is the only woman artist represented.
No Mary Cassatt. No Marie Braquemond or Eva Gonzalès, all of whom showed in the famous Paris Impressionist exhibitions.
Then as the curators led the North Central Texas art press thudding and clumping (I have audio) into the next room, Shackelford cut through he crowd noise announcing, "And see color explode."
Berthe Morisot Young Woman in a Ball Gown 1879 oil on canvas
From the Kimbell's i.d for this gem, "This painting, along with fourteen other works by Morisot, was shown in The Fifth Impressionist Exhibition in 1880. Then, this lush painting was simply called Portrait, perhaps to avoid naming the sitter or perhaps to point out how different it was from the period's conventional images of society beauties. The fair young woman, her face and body described with petal-like strokes of paint, seems to merge with the floral background."
Both figure and ground are vividly and variously flowered, but only her hair, tone-merges into the floral shadows and darks beyond. Her arms, shoulders, neck and face are boldly outlined in blacks that neatly contain her. There's no merging up till her hair. Everything else is brighter above, shading down to dirtied whites, pinks and darking blues, all abruptly juxtaposed to the indigos and deep greens of flowering plants. Her upper body shines, suggesting she posed at night under a street lamp, with bright highlights reflected in her torso and face. If you view many of Morisot's paintings, you learn women before radiant florals is a common pose, if not a recurring theme.
Talk about paint dance…
This Morisot non-portrait portrait has it in spades, foreground, background, all around town. It is particularly noticeable in her face and sparkling eyes, where eyes usually start in a portrait — especially one whose subject has no history for us. Unlike most work in the show, this painting is not about her connections or whom she knows, was kin or married to or collected or sold work. Her face stands on its own. Sometimes it's better not to know, so we can attend the work. At the Kimbell, I watched this one longer than any other in this show, and I've spent hours with it since.
It is lyrically described on the Musée d'Orsay's site: "This brilliant, free evocation of a young, unknown woman in a ball gown is the complete opposite of the society or official portrait produced by the regular painters at the Salon. In this work, Impressionism meets the art of Manet, Berthe Morisot's brother in law. However, in spite of the modernity of her style, the critics had always supported Morisot. So when she presented about fifteen paintings at the fifth Impressionist Exhibition in 1880, including this one, Charles Ephrussi, in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, wrote a poetic description and a sensitive analysis of the paintings:
"Berthe Morisot is very French in her distinction, elegance, gaiety and nonchalance. She loves painting that is joyous and lively; she grinds flower petals onto her palette, in order to spread them later on her canvas with airy, witty touches, thrown down a little haphazardly. These harmonise, blend, and finish by producing something vital, fine, and charming". These observations, although general, apply perfectly to this painting in which a model sits amidst flowers and greenery that find an echo, as much in the forms as in the treatment, with the trimmings on her dress."
"Berthe Morisot also enjoyed the recognition of artists, and she immediately sold her Young Girl in a Ball Dress to Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884), an Italian painter who took part in the Impressionist Exhibition. The painting then passed into the collection of the Art Critic Théodore Duret (1838-1927) who, through the entreaties of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), agreed, in 1894, to sell it to the State."
To see many — but not all of Berthe Morisot's paintings, click through WikiArt's Berthe Morisot collection or read Female French Impressionist Painters, which includes a video of more of her work, but with the sappiest soundtrack and the gimmicky-est video transitions imaginable. There's an even more robust description of two of her other paintings as well as Morisot's contribution to The Impressionists in a preview of Anne Higonnet's 1990 biography, Berthe Morisot.
Artists in the Fifth Impressionism Show used the word Impressionists to promote their exhibition, but they called themselves "Independent Artists," as in the advert "5th Exhibition created by a Group of Independent Artists, 10 rue des Pyramides, April 1-30 , 10 o'clock to 6 o'clock. Admission fee: 1 franc." Only 16 male artists were listed — and none of the women: Marie Braquemond, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot," according to AboutEducation. A longer, more detailed history of the Paris Impressionist Exhibitions is on the Encyclopedia of Art History.
Paul Cézanne Portrait of the Artist 1881
For this brash self-portrait, the Kimbell i.d waxes: "Cézanne paints himself roughly, using strong strokes of paint to define the abrupt shadows that accentuate the roughness of his face. All of the artist's personality appears in his flowering, somewhat neglected beard, which hides the lips as if to suggest the difficulty that Cézanne had in communicating with others. Never before in a self-portrait, however, had an artist revealed so much of the artisanal dimension of his work: not even the Realists of a previous generation would go so far in claiming a peasant identity."
I thought the curators had discussed this unruly self-portrait, but several careful listens to my hour-long tour audio turned up plenty other worthy quotes, which I replay below images on this page by Pissarro, Gauguin and Manet, although neither curator tips us about this one.
I found a quick Cézanne bio, whose quotes are especially telling, on The Art Story and a fascinating review of The Letters of Paul Cézanne by Alex Danchev in The Guardian, that gives a colorful, if sometimes scatological (in French) glimmer into the visionary painter's earthy reality. A more detailed bio with spare few pix is on Wikiwand. Cézanne is hardly defining himself as a peasant, just as his own unique self, stridently different from the other artists of his time.
My favorite part of this shadowy self-portrait that is too-often-rendered bright and light. Is his haloed right eye staring at us as if to grab our attention, see what he is saying and showing in this painting. Pay attention, class, it is dark on purpose. And I seriously doubt Cézanne intended his momentarily closed mouth to reveal any communication disfunction. More like he wants to show, not tell, what he's up to.
Camille Pissarro Peasant Girl at a Fire 1888
Here, Musée Director Xavier Rey told us in halting English, "we see rendering with very small dots to achieve a new effect of light, especially visible in this painting of two young peasants. It's a subject Pissarro had already worked on for one or two decades earlier." On its site, unlike the Kimbell, the Musée d'Orsay calls this Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire, although clearly it is already going, though she may have started it. From the Musée d'Orsay site: "Peasant women were one of Pissarro's most personal and fertile subjects, a distant echo of Millet's peasants."
Shackelford continues, "The transformation of these artists — they're really all part of a melting pot, you could say, in Montmartre … They are all knowing each other, and there are great friendships between Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, between Van Gogh and Gauguin, between the Pointilists and the members of the group that would be more expressionistic in their manner. When he painted this picture, Pissarro was still a major representative of the Impressionist movement he had helped found. Yet, from 1886, he had taken an interest in the experimental work of young artists, adopting the fragmented brush strokes of the method Georges Seurat was trying out. A group of "independent" Belgian artists invited them both to take part in the Exhibition in Brussels in 1887 and 1889. Peasant Girl Lighting a Fire [was] featured in the exhibition in 1889.
"Pissarro, however, quickly drew away from the Neo-impressionists and their new form of expression. He sought a compromise which would avoid excessive fragmentation of the brush strokes "while obeying the laws of colour as much as possible." Such ambiguity has its limits, as Paul Signac pointed out in his diary: "He could not find what he wanted in our technique [...] of opposition and contrast. He was looking for unity in variety, and we sought variety in unity." The result was this very personal idea of divisionism in which the fine mesh of brush strokes forms a dense substance, the fruit of slow, painstaking work, and yields a soft, unified luminous effect."
I like the dots and the effect, but I wouldn't call it soft. The fire is probably the best thing about it, and I appreciate its smoke billowing right, not up, so we can see it. The bucolic scene seems almost perfect for her, breaking a long branch to add to the fire, and the boy looking sidewise up at her, with either concern or malevolence. I wondered at calling it impressionist. But that stringy, faceted fire, its billowing smoke and all those super-real colors make it for me, and I can still see Jean-François Millet shining through.
Paul Gauguin Women of Tahiti (On the Beach) 1891 oil on canvas
Co-curator Shackelford continued the walking tour: "The other great figure that you haven't seen is Paul Gauguin, and he is the centerpiece of the next space in this exhibition. Ten years ago I did an exhibition with the Musée d'Orsay on Gauguin, and I'm very happy to have in my little sphere, four of the works that were some of the stars of that exhibition, which we'd [borrowed] from the Museum of Boston and the great Musée d'Orsay, beginning with this Gauguin Self-Portrait, painted by him in Britany.
"He begins the self-portrait looking in a mirror with, on the wall behind him, his painting of The Yellow Christ, a painting that he was finishing up in the fall of 1889, so we know that painting was begun before he sent that painting away to Paris to be sold. But we know also, that he didn't insert the figure of a man to his right, in the upper right hand corner of the painting, which is in fact a representation of the pot that's … right here. This tobacco jar made by Gauguin as a self-portrait — of himself, as he said, a demon suffering — a man suffering in hell — a soul in hell. And so in this self-portrait, he later inserts the pot, to put damnation on one side and redemption on the other. In both cases involving notions of suffering. Because if ever there was a … suffering artist, it was Gauguin.
"He is the absolute epitome of the suffering artist," Shackelford emphasized.
"So, to relieve all that suffering, he goes to Tahiti, where he thinks he will 'listen to the murmurs of my heart' in this Eden away from all Parisian muckraking, and he finds there a companion — a woman younger than average  — that he calls Teha'amana, who he portrays twice in this painting. She's seen once leaning on her arm, and once very warily looking out of the painting while she weaves straw between her fingers.
"And I think both of these are very closely drawn resemblances or likenesses of her, but she reappears in a more idealized form in this great head of a Tahitian woman that is very much inspired, we think, by the notion of Teha'amana, who was both a kind of slightly semi-religious figure and very mystical, and also a kind of temptress figure in his writings about her."
Xavier Rey speaks, but his English is difficult, and he's talking about Gauguin's symbolism, which forms a kind of — he struggles for the word in English, and Shackelford supplies it, "A Dream." So when he's in heaven —"
"Maybe not!" Shackelford interrupted loudly, continuing. "And so then, we're here in the 1890s, and just beyond with the posthumous portrait of Gauguin by Rodin — by the time you get Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin and Rodon, you have a lot of chance for making a mistake, I must say. And I do it frequently. But with Cézanne, you don't have so much of a chance."
Interesting that in this show, Van Gogh and Gauguin are certified Impressionists, though historically of the post- variety, and their work is in the visually and historically connected galleries with all the rest of them, whereas in The Kimbell's 2012 The Age of Impressionism, they were relegated to "the age of" end of that exhibition, and not shown with the main body of work. I'm guessing they've graduated as illustrated by Van Gogh's self-portrait becoming this show's icon. You've probably already seen that dark visage in Kimbell publicity, although it is usually rendered brighter.
Other Kimbell shows reviewed in DallasArtsRevue: The Age of Impressionism Bernini: Sculpting in Clay The Age of Picasso and Matisse The Meadows vs. The Kimbell Tomb Raiding, Museum Fishing & Pan Flashing in Fort Worth and Caravaggio: Beauty, Blood, Gore and Burnt Umber by Terry Hays