A Good Impression

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

Not everything painted in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century is impressionist in style, and that's also true for the inclusions in Impressionism. The exhibit encompasses not only classic impressionism, but examples of realism and post-impressionism as well. In order to address this sticky art history fact -- that most people use "impressionism" in a generic and non-specific way -- Standring starts out with paintings that are signature impressionist pictures, then invisibly weaves in realism and post-impressionism.

The first painting that comes into view is "On the Terrace at Sevres," which is hung opposite the entrance. It's a circa-1880 oil on canvas by the little-known painter Marie Bracquemond. "She's our big discovery," says Standring. "We even used this painting on the cover of the catalogue and for our billboards." In the painting, Bracquemond captures a group of friends sitting in the sunshine. The palette, with many creamy pastels, gives the painting a luminous quality, a keynote of the impressionist style. Using a profusion of short brush strokes, Bracquemond breaks up the color by interspersing a lighter shade within a darker one.

Just to the right of the Bracquemond is a mural-sized oil painting from 1880, "Place d'Anvers, Paris," by another little-known impressionist. Frederico Zandomeneghi was an Italian artist who came to Paris in 1874; he spent the rest of his life there, working in the inner circle of the impressionists, and died in 1917. Bracquemond and Zandomeneghi are among the few artists in the show whose reputations are known primarily to art historians.

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

The rest of the show is filled with the work of household names such as Edgar Dégas. Dégas's oil-on-canvas "Woman and Dog," circa 1875, is an early example of the artist's mature style. The presumably seated woman holding a small dog is seen partly from the rear and from slightly above. This vantage point reflects the painter's interest in the then-nascent field of photography. But because he flattened and simplified the composition, using a heavy outline to convey the woman's silhouette, it's more like a drawing than a painting. This commitment to the drawn line is an important component of Dégas's work.

In the next gallery, the light and airy palettes of the first room have been replaced by the dark color schemes preferred by the realists, the predecessors of the impressionists. These paintings were inspired by the Spanish artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who took Paris by storm in the 1860s and '70s. Dégas began as a realist, and there are several of his paintings here.

Also in this section is the exhibit's only painting by Édouard Manet, who was a true pioneer of impressionism -- even if he never exhibited with the others and did not consider his work to be related to theirs. In a sense, it was Manet who touched off the modern movement in painting, when his work was rejected by the conservative jurors of the Salon of 1863. Moved by public protests, Napoleon III established another exhibit called the Salon des Refusés, where Manet and other rejected artists had their work exhibited. Thus, almost a century and a half ago, the alternative-space idea was born.

The Manet in Impressionism is "Portrait of Henri Rochefort," an oil on canvas of 1881. Rochefort was a well-known political figure in France, a member of the socialistic Paris Commune. The painting reveals how Manet was continually influenced by Spanish art, especially the work of Francisco Goya. The vigorous and crude brushwork is a response to Goya, as is the murky palette in which Rochefort's face and white shirt glow against the luscious black of his waistcoat, which is enveloped in the deep, chocolatey-brown background.

The third gallery offers more classic impressionism, with sunny colors predominating. Hung on a diagonal wall is a remarkably fresh and new-looking painting of the seashore, "The Rocks at Belle-Ile," an oil on canvas of 1886 by Monet, the quintessential impressionist. In fact, it was from a painting by Monet that the term "impressionism" was coined -- and Impressionism is particularly rich in Monets, with no less than seven in the show. "The Rocks at Belle-Ile" sports an astounding number of visible brushstrokes -- and though the composition is readable as a landscape, the surface is so active, it predicts the coming of abstraction two decades later. Closely related is 1881's "The Cliff at Fécamp," another nearly abstract landscape. The magnificent gray seascape that DAM director Sharp admires also hangs in this section.

Beginning in the third gallery and continuing into the fourth is the work of Camille Pissarro, who, like Monet, is represented by seven paintings. Two marvelous Pissarros, 1898's "Avenue de l'Opera: Sunshine, Winter Morning" and 1902's "Le Pont-Neuf," hang side by side, examples of the artist's cityscapes painted from above -- again, a point of view inspired by photography. These sorts of turn-of-the-century views were already popular during Pissarro's lifetime -- a rare accomplishment for an impressionist, since most achieved only posthumous fame.

The fourth gallery also brings together examples by the three women included in the show. A second Bracquemond painting joins a pair by Berthe Morisot. One of these, "Young Woman Dressed for the Ball," an oil on canvas from 1879, is so delicately hued it requires careful examination. And hung across from the Pissarros is the finer of the show's two Mary Cassatt paintings, a lovely oil on canvas circa 1885 titled "Sisters." Cassatt, a wealthy socialite from Philadelphia, went to Paris in the 1870s and found a measure of acceptance despite the severe discrimination women faced in the art world at that time.

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