A Good Impression

The Denver Art Museum's nod toward Europe is a true blockbuster.

The hippest of the hipsters on the art scene have been doing lots of pooh-poohing and naysaying about the blockbuster Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums, which is now playing at the Denver Art Museum. Essentially, these cool-eratti believe that impressionism is too pedestrian for them -- and that the fact that the late-nineteenth-century style is so popular with people who know nothing about art proves how worthless it is.

So potential museum visitors may want to ask themselves a few questions in order to decide whether they are capable of enjoying Impressionism.

Do you like paint?

Vincent Van Gogh, "Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat," painting.
Vincent Van Gogh, "Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat," painting.

Do you like paint that's been applied to a surface with paintbrushes?

Do you like it when that surface is a canvas hung on a wall?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you won't want to miss Impressionism. The show, mounted in the Hamilton Galleries on the first floor and requiring admission tickets in advance, is downright fabulous.

Even unflappable DAM director Lewis Sharp has flipped for the show. "I'm astounded by the range and quality of work in the exhibit. Who would think that you could come to the Denver Art Museum and find a painting like that Monet seascape?" he asks rhetorically. He's referring to Claude Monet's "A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight," an oil on canvas of 1866. The painting is a significant and early masterpiece with an out-of-this-world palette of gray, purple and black.

It's hardly a surprise that Impressionism is so great -- after all, the DAM couldn't have gone wrong presenting a show that includes some of the biggest art stars in history (as well as some new discoveries whose work is only now coming to the attention of the museum-going public.)

According to Christine Genovese, the DAM's ace public-relations flack, Impressionism is predicted to break all attendance records. "We're expecting as many as 200,000 visitors," says Genovese. "It's the most elaborately planned and important show the museum has ever presented" -- and looking at the exhibit, which was funded by US West, it's hard to argue with her. Attendance estimates here in Denver are based on the experiences of the other two art institutions that have previously hosted the traveling show, Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. "The High Museum had record attendance, and so did Seattle," says Genovese. Denver is the last stop on the exhibit's itinerary before the paintings are returned to the dozens of European collections from which they've been borrowed.

Planning for the exhibit began nearly four years ago. Timothy Standring, head of the DAM's department of paintings and sculpture, recalls that at that time, "the directors and curators of the three museums met in London to discuss the possibility of an impressionist exhibition that would be jointly sponsored." London may seem a little off the beaten track as a meeting place, since home base for the museums is in this country, but there was a method to this madness: The directors and curators from the three American museums wanted a London-based curator, Ann Dumas, to take the reins. "We all agreed on Ann, and then we all helped to put together an 'A list' of the paintings we wanted to include," remembers Standring.

Each museum has presented the exhibit in a different way. In Atlanta, for example, walls were painted in bright colors. Here Standring worked with Lehlan Murray, the DAM's gifted exhibition designer, and the two chose various shades of -- what else? -- French blue for the walls, creating a subdued atmosphere in which the paintings shine like jewels. Their successful design was carefully conceived. Beginning in the first gallery and continuing throughout the show, Standring has used architectural elements vaguely suggestive of the nineteenth century, including grooved pilasters, cornices decorated with dentils, and chair rails. "We had elaborate scale models of the galleries constructed, with miniature paintings," says Standring. "Then we did a full-sized mockup of a typical wall with one of our own impressionist paintings hanging on it." One problem was the strict lighting constraints imposed by lenders. Standring's solution? Visitors assemble first in a dimly lit anteroom just outside the exhibit. This allows viewers' eyes to become accustomed to low light levels. Though the galleries themselves are also dimly lit, they seem positively dazzling in comparison to the darker waiting area. The state-of-the-art lighting scheme was worked out by engineers from George Sexton and Associates, the nationally renowned architectural design firm based in Washington, D.C.

Standring reminds us that the artists we call the impressionists called themselves "independents." The impressionists were the original bohemian artists. They painted -- and starved -- in unheated garrets. The term "impressionism," in fact, was originally a term of derision, since their work was reviled by the art establishment, which kept the style out of the official annual Salon exhibitions held in Paris. In response, beginning in 1874, the rejected artists established their own exhibitions; altogether, they presented eight impressionist shows, the last in 1886.

Standring has hung the paintings low on the wall so that their centers are at 59 to 65 inches above the floor -- the way they were hung in the original impressionist shows. This means that some of the larger paintings hang just above the chair rails. It makes the show kid-friendly, but it's also tempting for kids and other visitors to develop an overly intimate relationship with the paintings by actually touching them -- or at least thinking about it. This has caused the DAM's security department some consternation. Guard Les van der Mark, one of those assigned to protect the multi-million-dollar treasure trove, says he's had to deal with people getting too close to the masterpieces for his comfort. "Hopefully people will realize we're only doing our jobs when we tell them to step back from the paintings," van der Mark says politely.

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