Exhibit makes impression

This Sunday brought the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s latest exhibit, “Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890” to a close. As I wandered around the galleries, I had to compete for viewing space with the throngs of other patrons gathered to catch the very last glimpse of this compilation of paintings, and with good reason: the collection of artwork there was incredible. Paintings in the galleries had come from all over the world – from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Thannhauser Gallery of the Guggenheim, the Van Gogh Foundation in Amsterdam, the Hogg Museum at Harvard my own hometown favorite, the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit also included paintings from the permanent galleries of the Clark.

The exhibit brought me through the maze of rooms on the third floor, each room dedicated to one of the highlighted artists: Manet, Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Van Gogh. Manet kicked off the sequence with his 1876 Before the Mirror, a compelling view of the back of a woman in front of her vanity. The individual variety within the Manet room caught my eye; quick and lesser-acclaimed works such as his 1870 Funeral, a rather uninteresting and flat composition of a group of mourners against a staid green background, juxtaposed against his well-known Races at Longchamps of 1866, a head-on view of horses charging down the stretch, with the paint blurred to give the illusion of fast movement. Contrasting even more was his Moss Roses in a Vase, which seemed to me the least “impressionist” of all; the painting, completed later in life, failed to deviate from the true color of the objects. Compared to the rest of the show, it seemed too realist to belong in the gallery; the riot of colors elsewhere rendered it out of place.

The room housing eighteen of Monet’s paintings included one of his famous train station paintings, La Gare St. Lazare, as well as many other lesser-known works. I was slightly disappointed to see a notable lack of variety within this room; Monet, after all, painted a dozen or so paintings of a wheatstack in different conditions. Despite his fame for painting different environmental conditions, this room housed only two paintings not showing a daytime scene (one twilight, one nighttime), and three of the 18 were of seascapes.

Although his individual paintings were beautiful, the lack of difference among them detracted from my enjoyment of the room. Considering that they had drawn works from all over the world for the exhibit, it struck me that they could have chosen some more contrasting paintings for the Monet part of the exhibit.

The next room, housing Berthe Morisot’s work, seemed to me to be the essence of the Impressionist movement. Her paintings, which depicted everything from landscapes to still lifes to portraits (sometimes all three at once), used quick strokes of contrasting colors juxtaposed atop one another. Her Interior of a Cottage portrayed her daughter, a table setting and a view of the outside through a window, all unified by a consistent technique. Her room seemed to me to be the most varied in content as well as the most “impressionist” of the whole exhibit.

Renoir’s work was next, including mostly lesser-known works that used brighter, more vivid colors than one usually associates with his work. His Self-Portrait presented a strikingly mature and assured sketch-turned-final-painting. The work presented here included mostly figures and landscapes, but also one cityscape, The Grand Boulevards, one of the few depictions of a city in this whole exhibit.

The room containing Sisley was, in my opinion, a disappointment. Sisley’s work rarely, if ever, deviated from his main theme of landscapes, and all but one of the paintings displayed included water in some form. He generally avoided figures in his work, and so his work seemed less and less enjoyable as I moved from painting to painting. Although his style of long, thin and flowing strokes lent itself well to the Impressionist era, his unwillingness to deviate from the theme of naturalism somewhat discounted his ability as a painter to me.

The work of Degas, well-known for his quick pastel drawings, occupied one-half of a partitioned room. Three monotypes portrayed quick works, and several other paintings (none too-well known) displayed his attempts at quick painting. However, the quote and display on the wall made it clear that Degas was no fan of painting hastily and somewhat scorned the Impressionist movement, thus explaining the notable lack of paintings from his studio.

Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist paintings provided a close to the exhibit, containing several paintings in his typical impasto style, such as Entrance to a Quarry. Van Gogh, it seems, was not interested so much in the faithful representation of objects with quick painting as he was with the geometricization of the scenes and forms. But his one painting Crab on its Back seemed Impressionistic-enough to validate his inclusion in the exhibit. Also present in this room was the Camille Pissarro painting The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, another striking work displaying the beauty of a nighttime street scene.

After absorbing this exhibit of 80-plus paintings, I wandered to the café and conversed with a few people. Like the paintings, they had come from all over: a lady from Manhattan, two gallery employees from London. And with reason: the Clark had assembled a world-class exhibit that would have been a shame to miss. At least for a fleeting moment, it gave its patrons an impression of Impressionism.