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?

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.

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.

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.

Moving on to the fifth gallery, we pass through a corridor in which the small but historically significant "Still Life With Oranges," an 1882 oil on canvas by Paul Gauguin, is hung alone. Though Gauguin is best remembered as a post-impressionist, this very early painting is pre-impressionist, being realist in style.

More fully expressing the abstraction and flatness of the post-impressionists is Vincent Van Gogh, and two beautiful if minor Van Goghs are displayed here. Unforgettable is the sketchy "Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat" of 1887, an oil on pasteboard. Curator Standring says the painting reflects Van Gogh's grinding poverty, since privation forced him to stretch the paint to the breaking point. Another big-time post-impressionist featured in Impressionism is Paul Cézanne, whose stunning "Bathers in Front of a Tent," an oil on canvas from 1883-85, is worth lingering over. Abstract artists of the early twentieth century, notably Picasso, would learn a lot from a Cézanne painting like this.

The last space brings us back to mainstream impressionism, here with a couple of Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings in oil on canvas: 1883's "Bathing Woman" and 1903's "Seated Girl." They are displayed with a Cassatt and a Pissarro.

With nearly sixty paintings by more than a dozen artists, almost half of whom are giants in the canon of world art history, visitors may want to see the DAM's Impressionism more than once. I know I do.

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