The French Impressionists Rediscovered: “They Didn’t Know Their Works Would Be Masterpieces” | Art
“Damn Manet! Whatever he does, he always succeeds right away, whereas I go to endless pains and never succeed. “
These are the words of Edgar Degas, inscribed on the wall next to a lively pencil lithograph sketched by the object of his frustration, his colleague Édouard Manet. The image is called Les Courses; in it, the horses gallop towards the viewer and the frantic lines capture the energy of the watching crowd.
Hanging on the wall to his left are two bright but brooding paintings, this time by Degas himself, and also on the theme of horse racing. They capture quieter moments: gathering of jockeys, maybe just before the competition; a woman breastfeeding in a car, partially covered by a parasol as her family watches. The paintings are striking in both their quality and their frankness – fleeting, private moments captured forever in the soft light of long ago. Accompanying these works are other words from Degas: “No art has ever been less spontaneous than mine.
This year’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, French Impressionism at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which opened on Friday, brings together the work of some of the greatest and most well-known in the history of the ‘art. These are names that one cannot help but know: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh. These are paintings that you have seen in books, in movies, in puzzles. And while the opportunity to see famous works up close – to study the masters’ brushstrokes from the same distance they sat as they painted them – is likely to warrant a visit for most, the true joy of a spectacle like French Impressionism gets to know people who were previously only names stamped above great reputations. In the details of their history and the minutiae of their artistic practice, they once again become individuals and human beings: insecure and jealous people, optimistic and fatalistic, people who created on the fringes of the artistic world, not knowing how their inheritance would be.
A key part of the exhibit is getting to know the creators through their relationships, says Katie Hanson, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “We have access to letters, notebooks and interviews of a greater richness than in previous periods. So it is really possible to find out what these ladies and gentlemen thought of themselves and each other.
What the Impressionists were doing in the late 1800s was revolutionary for the time. They created works quickly and freely, which favored the capture of a moment rather than the perfect composition. The Impressionists were far from the mainstream; their methods meant that they had turned their backs on the safer – and often more lucrative – formal path of the salon, and they were criticized for exhibiting “unfinished” works. In their day, these artists were outsiders.
“They didn’t know… that their works would be masterpieces – they painted them a lot in a local context,” says Miranda Wallace, senior curator at NGV. “They had these relationships with each other, human relationships, fueled by doubt – and also great friendship and camaraderie.”
Halfway through the exhibition, a room is designed to show the complexity of these relationships. A diagonal barrier runs most of the way, dividing the space into two triangular halves. On the one hand, works by Renoir, giving an overview of his range and his willingness to experiment – which both caused him great insecurity in his abilities at the time, but which also allowed him to develop creatively throughout their career.
Coming from a poor background, without the same training as his contemporaries, Renoir would have considered himself a lesser artist. The room reflects this fear – it is separated by the barrier from his fellow artists Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. A narrow window, however, also runs the length of the room, allowing you to look from side to side. If you follow the art around the four walls, the quality is the same; Renoir does not appear less. But the barrier creates a kind of yearning; he is part of the world of his contemporaries, but separate.
This is an exhibition on connections: the works of mentors and mentees are paired; the artists’ words accompany works that are not their own. Degas’s close friendship with American artist Mary Cassatt is represented both through his paintings and prints with her as the subject, and in the way their separate works influence each other. Its history is fascinating to follow throughout the exhibition; the frustration and insecurity of his words are often at odds with his external confidence in his choice of exhibition.
“From the very first impression showing in 1874, [Degas] showed very finished salon-style paintings, alongside newly started sketches, ”says Ted Gott, also senior curator at NGV. “And that shocked the critics.”
Seeing these works up close provides information that is not possible on a screen or in a printout. Gott and Wallace point out a detail in Van Gogh’s painting where a window that initially appears white is, in fact, just a piece of the canvas deliberately left blank – apparent only from the change in texture.
Knowing the legacy that many of these artists would leave, it’s easy to forget that for most of them at the time, their work was a risk – to create art in the way they saw fit. , they had to make personal and financial sacrifices.
“At first we laughed at them, we laughed at them and people didn’t understand them,” says Gott. “It took 15 years – from 1874 to 1890 – for Monet to finally achieve financial success. So we must not think that they were automatically crowned with success. There is a lot of struggle, a lot of pain, a lot of difficulty. He adds that while some of the Impressionists were independently wealthy, “Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, they’re poor – sometimes they can’t pay the rent.”
It’s a reminder that art and artists never seem to be fully formed. “They knew they were on a much more uncertain path,” Wallace says. “They were going into the unknown – hoping to change people’s understanding of what art could be.”