Museums & Exhibitions Visual Art

Exhibiting Impressionism

A blog post from July 29, 2012 ·

Impressionism is hot. It has been for a while and probably will be for much longer. An exhibition with the word Impressionism in its title, is a guaranteed blockbuster for the hosting museum. However, an interesting development in the presentation of Impressionism is occurring.

Recently, I visited two major exhibitions with Impressionism in its title.

The first is on until the 23rd of September at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and is titled From Paris, A taste for Impressionism. Paintings from the Clark. It shows a selection of the Francine and Sterling Clark Institute collection. This institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts consists of a museum, but also of a learning center and has close ties to Williams College. Currently its buildings are expanded and renovated, offering a chance for the collection to be shown in other places. The core of the collection is traveling through North America, Europe and Asia over the next few years. Sterling Clark, heir of the Singer sewing machine legacy was a self taught connoisseur who immersed himself, together with his wife Francine, in the art world. He heavily relied on her opinion and developed friendships with art dealers, such as the famous Durand-Ruel family. He trained his eye by visiting museums, galleries, auctions and mostly talking about and looking at the works themselves. This love for, mostly, nineteenth-century painting was the basis for a truly great collection.

In the exhibition, the paintings are categorized by theme: still-life, landscape, genre scenes, the female figure, orientalism and portraits. By no means, the exhibition has the pretensions to aim for completion or cultural critique – it shows the sincere appreciation of a couple for the art of a certain period. Which is the key to this exhibition. They sure had their favorite artists (Renoir!) but they could very well admire a highly academic painting. Interesting, as the Academy was what the Impressionists rebelled against. However, seeing Renoir’s child in Algerian costume next to Gerome’s young snake charmer provides an immediate insight in the period these paintings were made. It tells you about contemporary taste (for so-called exotic subject matter), about the sense of Impressionist rebellion (Renoir), but also about learning a metier and sticking to it (Gerome).

A similar approach is taken in the Hermitage Amsterdam, where this summer the exhibition Impressionism, Sensation & Inspiration. Favorites from the Hermitage is on display. The museum being a branch of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, the core of all its exhibitions are works of the Russian collection. Which means, as in the Royal Academy, that the paintings and sculptures are not often on display on this side of the world. Also here, we see the combination of academic and Impressionist contemporaries. This might be different than the exhibition title implies, but it is to great advantage of its quality. Works that are rarely written about, are on display in addition to their much written about Impressionist contemporaries. Again, this is not an exhibition about Impressionism, instead it is a story on the social and artistic developments that took place in the nineteenth century.

And if you ask me, that is the proper way to present these art works. When only presenting major Impressionist works of art, it is difficult to appreciate them for their revolutionary character, which they frankly have. But in the midst of their contemporaries, we see the shock and awe they must have caused when displayed for the first time. Moreover, we learn to appreciate the Academic works of art, because these are so radically different from the Impressionists we all know. And, within the academic tradition developments occurred as well, it is not like time stood still in the academies. So in sum: to see the complete picture is the most appropriate approach to value each and every single work of art in it.

Academic works have been under appreciated for a long time. The over appreciation of Impressionism seems to be leading to a re-appreciation of academic painting. Which it deserves. Impressionism will surely stay hot for a while longer, but it is gaining due competition.

Images on top: Covers of exhibition catalogues Royal Academy in London and Hermitage Amsterdam.

Images in text:
First line – (left) Auguste Renoir, Child with a Bird, 1882, oil on canvas (126.4 x 78.1 cm) Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown; (right) Jean-Leon Gerome, The Snake Charmer, c.1879, oil on canvas (82.2 x 121 cm) Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown.
Second line – (left) Edmond-Georges Grandjean, L’avenue des Champs- Élysées, vue de la place de l’ Étoile, 1878l, oil on canvas, (85.5 х 136.5 cm) State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; (rigth) Camille Pissarro, Place du Théâtre Français, 1898, oil on canvas (65.5 x 81.5 cm) State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

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