After innumerable hours spent looking at Impressionist paintings as museums beckon around the world, one begins to feel reasonably familiar with different artists’ oeuvre. At least, that is what I assumed…
I got beautifully jerked out of my feeling of the predictable, in terms of artists’ works, when I recently went to see a small exhibition, Monet to Matisse: Masterworks of French Impressionism from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, which has been on display at the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center in Savannah (until February 10th, 2019). Thirty small paintings, and most of them not only interesting and lovely, but also surprising. Nearly all of them added an extra dimension to one’s knowledge of the artist concerned: early works, atypical works, experimental works, private works that were very personal in some way. It was such fun to see and in truth, it served me right as I had expected somewhat “more of the usual” as we all have seen either originals or reproductions of Impressionist paintings by the thousand. And I was reminded - do not assume in life!
One of the first I saw was a more familiar type of painting, given that Claude Monet’s fascination with the passage of natural light guided his entire life’s work. In this painting, he was capturing the last rays of evening sunshine over Dieppe harbour, a world with which he was deeply familiar as he had frequented the Normandy coast since he was five years old.
However, from that painting onwards, my interest was piqued. The story behind Camille Pissarro’s simple landscape, with the single, poignant apple tree in the foreground, underlined how creating art is important to an artist, no matter what the circumstances. Pissarro was aged and with failing eyesight by the 1890s, and so could not go outdoors to paint as he had previously done. So from an upstairs window in his Eragny home, he painted a series of the views of the orchard and landscapes beyond, at different times of the day and thus in different lights; in many of these works appears this apple tree. Lesson - keep painting, somehow! You can still keep producing moving, beautiful, eloquent works of art.
Another late Pissarro painting was also an astonishing look back, at least to my eyes. Again hampered by his failing sight, just before his death in 1903, Pissarro painted scenes from his window at Le Havre. By now, he had attained recognition, and was more content to use freer brush strokes and more harmonised colour, as he continued to paint scenes at different times of the day to explore the changing light. However, as I walked up to this painting, I was reminded so much of some of Eugène Boudin’s coastal scenes - looser in this case, but somehow the same sense of orderliness and with those inevitable touches of red to enliven the salt-laden air and light of the Normandy coast.
On the opposite wall was another delightful surprise - a Renoir that was definitely refreshingly different.
Renoir summered every year between 1879 and 1882 at Wargemont, near Dieppe, at the home of his banker friend and patron, Paul Bérard. On the Normandy coast, where the English Channel brings waves pounding in to shore with storm-driven intensity, he did a series of experimental seascapes, varying dramatically from his portraiture. This wonderful depiction of a foam-crested wave is all tactility and drama, the paint slathered on as if the spray flung up transmuted to paint on his canvas as he presumably practically stood in the water on the shoreline. The energy and sound of the sea leap off the canvas. I was transfixed for this is not the Renoir of delicate, sensitive, sometimes “chocolate box" portraits.
A portrait, however, was my next surprise and reminder of how little I do know. I have always associated American Impressionist, Mary Cassatt, with wonderful, deeply felt portraits of mothers and children - gentle, tender, celebrating motherhood, despite Cassatt’s courageous tenacity in making her mark as a serious painter in a male-dominated French artistic world. This portrait, however, despite its generic title, was of her sister, Lydia, who was living with Mary in Paris by the mid-1870s and was one of her favourite models. Two years before this portrait was painted, however, Lydia had been diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a very unpleasant and fatal kidney disease. Mary did a series of portraits of her sister. I found this one, seemingly unfinished and hasty in parts, to be moving and profound, a testament to the close affection between the two sisters who must have been so aware of how precious time was. A very different approach to Cassatt’s usual celebration of motherhood.
There was also a portrait in the show by the other lady Impressionnist, Berthe Morisot, which again pushed me out of my assumptions! I have associated her with good, often tender portraits mostly of young women, impressionist and light-filled in approach. However, a portrait of a study young peasant girl, surrounded by tulips and herself somewhat tulip-like is far more linear, at a time when Morisot was turning increasingly to drawing and the use of interlocking forms, Japonism and the limited palette that was influenced by her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. Painting every day, even when she was in the countryside caring for her frail husband, Morisot produced, amongst others, this strong, very realistic and very different portrait - it fascinated me. Somehow, perhaps because of the tulips, it seemed a painting produced by later Dutch or American-Dutch artists.
Another portrait surprised - a work produced by 20-year-old Henri Toulouse Lautrec after he had initially moved to Montmartre, the place to be in Paris if you were an aspiring artist. Clearly still under the influence of Edgar Degas as well as Jean-Louis Forain, Lautrec was obviously already fascinated and inspired by the world of ballerinas and dancers in the near-bohemian world of cafes and dance halls. His later oeuvre, with which I am more familiar, is more flamboyant and brilliant in composition, but this direct portrait already shows the speed of execution and immediacy for which he became noted.
One final blow to my assumptions was a small, colourful canvas by Henri Matisse.
Matisse had started studying law in 1887 in Paris, but gave that up to study art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He was soon known as an “apostle for ugliness” and shocked with his strong, often jarring colour use and bold composition. He had already moved on from Post-Impressionism to his Fauve period and this canvas, painted in Brittany where he was visiting his Australian friend, John Peter Russell, hints at his introduction through Russell to Vincent van Gogh’s work, its use of colour as symbol and its fresh sense of composition. When I think of Matisse, I remember his later work; this small painting filled in a gap in my knowledge.
Other surprises, other interests, but not as much as in these paintings. The exhibition was a timely and fascinating reminder to me that remaining open to expanding horizons is always vital. It made me realise afresh that each of us, as artists, evolves over time - at least one hopes so! - and whilst there may be an underlying coherence in the work done, there are nonetheless different approaches and experiments, art that is deeply personal and private, or other pieces that are way outside the usual vocabulary of the artist. We all have so many facets - of character, of experience - throughout our life; art reflects that same diversity and richness. Wonderful!