Marie Bracquemond, On the Terrace at Sevres [c1880] Detail, oil, 34 5/8 x 45 1/4
By Ann Dumas
The acceptance and acquisition of Impressionist paintings by European museums is the subject of an exhibition on view at the Seattle Art Museum, WA, from June 12 through August 29 and at the Denver Art Museum, CO, from October 2 to December 12. Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, the exhibit includes 60 paintings by some of the 19th century’s best-known artists. Following is an excerpt from the book accompanying the exhibit, Impressionism, Paintings Collected by European Museums [1999 Harry N. Abrams], by curator Ann Dumas.
We might wonder, perhaps, why the early history of a work of art should interest us today. Why should we care who owned a picture more than a hundred years ago, which dealers bought and sold it, or how it came to end up in a particular museum? Although important to the archival work of scholars and cataloguers and sometimes useful in confirming the authen-ticity of a work, the lineage of a painting’s previous owners has usually been of little interest to a broader audience. Yet buried in the fine print titled “Provenance” in a catalog entry is the often fascinating story of a painting’s life.
The exhibition on view at the Seattle Art Museum excavates such dryly recorded facts and brings to life the individual heroes of this important chapter in the history of modern taste: the original collectors who had the insight to buy Impressionist paintings, albeit for modest prices, providing vital en-couragement and, for some of the artists, desperately needed funds that enabled them to continue to work at a crucial point in their early careers; and second, the visionary museum directors whose daring early purchases brought Impressionism into the arenas of their own national cultures, allowing it to nourish the native artists of their own and future generations.
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Pears [c1885], oil, 15 x 18 1/8
The term Impressionist originally coined by a critic who seized on Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, as a prime example of the slapdash appearance of the canvases on view at the first Impressionist ex-hibition in 1874 has given rise to a false idea of the homogeneity of the group. Like most artistic “isms,” the term fails to encompass the complexities and shifts in style among the diverse artists who exhibited under its banner. The artists themselves disagreed about the term, generally preferring the name Independents, while Degas always thought of himself as a Realist. Although in general all the artists in the group shared a commitment to painting contemporary subjects in an informal manner, they were broadly divided into two camps. “Pure” Impressionists, led by Monet and including Pissaro, Sisley, and sometimes Renoir, painted out of doors, recording their spontaneous responses to light and atmosphere. An opposing faction, led by Degas and including Caillebotte, Forain, and Raffaelli, was more interested in urban subjects, draftsmanship, and the human figure. After the third exhibition of the Impressionists in 1877, these different interests led to a serious rift that undermined the solidarity of the group. Furthermore, the artists’ individual styles evolved in different ways. In the 1880s both Monet and Renoir abandoned the purely outdoor Impressionist style in favor of a more reflective approach to painting, and this applies in different ways to the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, and even Pissarro.
The complete accessibility of Impressionism today makes it hard to comprehend its early radicalism. Why, we ask, should these enchanting scenes of outdoor hedonism or telling vignettes of contemporary Parisian life have touched such a raw nerve? The clash between hostile critics and a misunderstood avant-garde is now part of the received history of early modernism. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that all the early reviews of the Impressionist exhibitions were harsh and uncom-prehending: A number of distin-guished critics were early allies. But in an era that saw an explosion in the number of newspapers and journals published, critics’ opinions were sometimes exaggerated for the sake of lively journalism.
What outraged the public was not so much what the pictures showed but the way they were painted—the seemingly careless execution and the lack of all traditional notions of composition and finish. In their quest to capture their visual impressions with immediacy, the Impressionists developed a synoptic language of loose, rapid brushwork, seemingly crude colors, and “unarranged” compositions in which forms often overlapped and were cropped. Their aim was to replicate the random, unpremeditated way that we perceive things in life. But to the public, the idea of exhibiting such “sketches” as finished pictures was incompre-hensible.
The Impressionists did not set out to be radicals. As Pissarro modestly explained some years later, “I do not believe that art is a matter of progress. It is simply that at the present time we are interested in certain effects that our ancestors were not concerned about.” Unlike the polemical groups of the early 20th century—the Futurists and the Surrealists, for example—the Impressionists had no clearly defined artistic program or manifesto. Their aim in forming an independent group was pragmatic: They needed an outlet through which to exhibit and sell their work because of their failure to achieve recognition at the official, govern-ment-sponsored Salon, which held annual exhibitions in Paris that were a dominant feature of French artistic life and were attended by vast crowds.
Although the Impressionists’ first independent group exhibitions were a commercial failure, they did attract considerable press coverage that drew visitors and a small group of pioneering collectors. The principal early collectors of Impressionism were a diverse group. Among them were Ernest Hoschede, a department store owner whose wife later married Monet; the famous operatic baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure; Eugene Murer, a pastry cook and restauranteur; Georges de Bellio, a Rumanian homeopathic doctor; retired customs officer Victor Chocquet; Paul Berard, the diplomat and banker who was Renoir’s patron; and François Depeaux, the Rouen merchant who, for a time, supported Sisley. Other early collectors were the critics and writers who were the first supporters of the Impressionists, as well as the painters themselves.
The widening gulf between the Salon and the avant-garde fostered the emergence of a new system of commercial dealers that is the basis of the art market as we know it today. Besides the artists’ independently organized exhibitions and auctions, the dealers provided the artists with the most important vehicle for selling their work, one that would eventually come to replace the Salon. As the commercial dealer system grew, the authority of the Salon began, gradually, to wane.
When the informality of its style no longer shocked, Impressionism continued to grow in appeal as an exciting and fashionable art, attracting new bourgeois patrons who wanted to ensure for themselves a place in the avant-garde. Ironically, the Im-pressionists’ former status as renegades enhanced their appeal to the connoisseurship and speculative skills of the bourgeois collector. Increas-ingly, Impressionist paintings were favorably reviewed in the press, and illustrations in the pages of fashionable magazines served to endorse them as a fashionable purchase and a good investment.
More recently, the dissemination of information in the form of scholarship and catalogues raisonnes has, of course, contributed to the great rise in the prices paid for Impressionist paintings. Economic factors in the 1980s—such as inflation and an influx of wealthy private and corporate Japanese collectors—pushed the financial value of these works to unprecedented heights.
Toward the end of his life, Cèzanne claimed that he wanted to make of Impressionism “something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” This reflected an aspiration shared by several of the Impressionists to invest their modern painting with something of the weight and monumentality of the old masters. Today, the Impressionist painters have attained—some would even say surpassed—the status of the old masters of the past and taken their place in our great museums.
Featured in “In the Museums” July 1999