When I was around six years old, my mother took a class in oil painting at Emily Griffith Opportunity School. I have vivid memories of her bringing home boxes of smelly paint and handfuls of those tiny books filled with child-sized reproductions of the paintings of Renoir and Van Gogh. She was thrilled that the class was being taught in the style of the Impressionists because, as she said, "Painting like that is so easy--you can mess up and it doesn't even matter. Anybody can do it."

Although my mother never claimed to know much about art, she liked the Impressionists--and millions of others do, too. Impressionist paintings are highly narrative and representational, without all the stiff fussiness of the French Academy, whose strict rules the Impressionists denounced in favor of a more natural, less rigid style. Today, a century after the revolutionary painting movement began, people still respond to the swift sensuousness of Impressionism as well as to the nostalgia of its subject matter: We love these paintings of flower-filled gardens, dancing children and ladies in picture hats.

The hundreds of thousands of people who will visit the Denver Art Museum's American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 will find plenty of comfort art, but they'll get a taste of another, darker side of that romantic age as well. This show is a second-string version of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's current blockbuster, a dazzling exhibition of its European Impressionists collection. But second-string does not necessarily mean second-best; some connoisseurs prefer the Americans to the Europeans. They appreciate the crisp style, the relative absence of prurience and the enlightened view of women that characterize much American Impressionist painting.

But there were different schools even within American Impressionism, and the DAM's shrewd presentation makes a clear-headed comparison of the pointed social commentary of Realists such as Bellows and the softer-edged, less activist works by the likes of Chase, Sargent and Henri. In retrospect, both schools offer a similarly sanitized view of American life as seen through a gauzy veil of schmaltz; and both blur the details of their viewpoints by using those lovable, sloppy sloshes of gestural paint strokes (though scandalous at the time, today the Impressionist style of brushwork merely looks soft and old-fashioned). But the dialogue between Impressionism's seaside gentility and Realism's ethnic color remains an intriguing one.

The show incorporates a mesmerizing range of styles and subjects and includes originals of some of American art's most famous works. J.S. Sargent's "Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes," with its eager society belle and her pale young husband, exemplifies the way a simple image can encapsulate an entire era. John Sloan's "Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair" takes a subject the French Impressionists often turned into an opportunity to ogle and makes a cheerful study of character and the tenement way of life. And George Bellows's "Club Night," with its sweating boxers caught in the spotlight at the moment of attack, reveals in its shadowy details a world of human depravity.

While woefully few, women artists of the era are also represented: Mary Cassatt's three paintings and Cecilia Beaux's "Ernesta, (Child With Nurse)" make this lavish show slightly less than a stag affair. Far from tokens, these pieces are among the more interesting on display.

After immersing yourself in this show, the political foundations of the Impressionists and their work fade into the background, leaving one indisputable fact: These glorious paintings are universal in their appeal.

American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life 1885-1915, through February 5 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-7656.


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