Going Green

Impressionists get back to nature at the Denver Art Museum.

It was in the nineteenth century that artists in Europe and the United States, for the first time in millennia, went outside to create their works. This led to a rise in the status of landscape paintings, previously a secondary type of art overshadowed by historic narrative painting and the noble portrait. Even still lifes were more highly regarded at the time.

One of the factors that predicated the move from studio to nature was the development of paint in tubes, which made colors portable. Previously, artists would use a mortar and pestle to grind minerals and earth and bind them together in oil to make pigments. Needless to say, this was messy, and the materials were hard to travel with.

Bringing the easel into the sunshine is rather pretentiously called plein-air painting, which simply means painting outdoors. But the fact that the word "air" is in it — even if it is in French — is telling, because many of these artists went on to try and depict the air itself as it enveloped the landscape. This approach is the organizing theme of Landscapes From the Age of Impressionism, now at the Denver Art Museum.

Claude Monet's "Le Palais Ducal," oil on canvas.
Claude Monet's "Le Palais Ducal," oil on canvas.

Details

Through September 7, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org.For a complete slide show of this exhibit, go to slideshow.westword.com.

The traveling show features more than three dozen landscape paintings from the collection of New York's Brooklyn Museum, all of which were painted — or at least sketched out — on site between the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

At this point, some may note how strange it is that the DAM would present back-to-back impressionist shows, what with Inspiring Impressionism having just closed. But Age of Impressionism is a very different show. It is not a blockbuster, but a rather small selection of works, and it doesn't have any major masterpieces, a category well-represented in the previous show by Cezanne's early and significant view of Mont Ste-Victoire, for example. Also, while the current exhibit shows how impressionism developed, the other display sought to reveal how the impressionists were inspired by the Old Masters; this look in the rearview mirror was the perfect vehicle for DAM curator Timothy Standring, head of the painting and sculpture department, to present his anti-historical installation philosophy, wherein he juxtaposed works of widely different dates to reveal the similarities and differences between them.

In Age of Impressionism, overseen for its Denver stop by assistant curator Angelica Daneo, viewers can take a straightforward linear trajectory through the material that begins with the painters of the French Academic tradition, continues on with the full-blown French impressionists and winds up with the critiques of impressionism done by American artists. Each of the three phases is in its own section, with the final phase further subdivided into artists working in Europe and those working in this country.

I love this kind of approach, because it allows the art to make sense and to tell stories about its times and its creation simply by its being arranged in a rational, roughly chronological order within separate categories.

Daneo was almost apologetic about the simplicity of her conceptual framework and suggested that it was already built into the exhibit, as it came canned from Brooklyn. But she's too modest, because she could have done anything she wanted with the arrangement of the paintings — especially considering the weird spaces in the Gallagher Family Gallery on level one of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, where it's installed. Instead, she did it the tried-and-true way, and I commend her for it. It's been so long since I've seen a historical show done this way at the DAM, it feels fresh, too.

As I looked over the group of easel paintings, several things struck me. The paintings were solid and interesting; some were by mega-famous artists while others were by artists so obscure they're known only to scholars and niche collectors. All together, the paintings had the appearance of a private collection put together by a single individual, so I was surprised when I later scrutinized the exhibition checklist to see that the pieces had come from many different sources over a long period of time.

The first section of the show highlights the oldest pieces, the most interesting of which were the ones done by the realists, including three marvelous paintings by Gustave Courbet and three others by Eugène Boudin. Painted in 1862, before impressionism even started, Courbet's "Le Rocher Isolé" definitely sets the stage for the pending movement. The scene is not classically picturesque, with a big boulder in the surf placed slightly off-center in the foreground. The brushwork is manic, and great gobs of paint have been swirled and piled on to convey the rawness of the dark and somewhat troubling scene.

Boudin's "Trouville, Le Port" from 1886, works at bridging the gap between realism and impressionism from the opposite end of the style. In Boudin's piece, the palette is light and creamy and the brushstrokes are short and sharp, so that viewers see the town in the painting, lit by the sun under the gorgeous blue sky, but they are only able to take it in from a distance, through a veil of heavy atmosphere.

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