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.
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.
Up next are the French impressionists, with a quartet of Monets setting the tone. None are as good as the DAM's own "Waterloo Bridge," but all are worth seeing. The most notable is "Le Palais Ducal (The Doge's Palace)," from 1908, depicting the structure in Venice and, even more noticeable, its reflection in the lagoon. True, the subject isn't one that's associated with Monet, as would be haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral or water lilies, but the brushwork and sense of color are signature Monet.
Surely, the chief reason people like impressionist paintings is because they're so darned pretty, but for scholars, the attraction is in the way the style lays the groundwork for the development of abstraction. One of the Monets, "Le Iles à Port-Villez," from 1897, really makes this point, because it's little more than some scribbles filling out amorphous shapes, making it virtually abstract-expressionist.
It's the American section of the show that is the strongest part of the exhibit, however, even though most of the paintings done by the least-known artists are here. Not that there aren't some big names — William Glackens, Childe Hassam and George Innes among them — but who's Robert Spencer? Ever heard of him? I haven't.
Looking at Spencer's crisp, modernist and virtually geometric depiction of the back of a rundown building in the painting "The White Tenement," from 1913, it's hard to believe he doesn't have a higher profile. That's also true for other little-known artists in Age of Impressionism, such as Willard Metcalf and Charles Hawthorne.
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Among the works by better-recognized artists are two of my favorites from the period, John Twachtman and Ernest Lawson, both of whom pushed their personal interpretations of impressionism and, even more so, post-impressionism. Lawson's "Garden Landscape," from 1915, is an incredibly dense rendering of an overgrown garden. Smeary gestures convey the foliage, while dots and blobs of bright colors stand in for flowers. Lawson is a great painter, and way too expressionistic to be truly considered an impressionist.
Seeing his piece made me think about the fact that Lawson lived and worked in Colorado for several years, teaching at the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs. As you might expect, he painted views of the Rockies during his stay. Wouldn't it be neat if the DAM made an effort to pull these paintings together and give Lawson a solo made up of his Western paintings? I know I'd love to see it.
Before I conclude, I want to mention another subtle aspect of this show: the gorgeous frames on many of the paintings. In the past twenty years, many museums have scrapped original frames and replaced them with more conservation-worthy — though less interesting — mountings. Apparently the Brooklyn Museum has resisted this trend, and those who take in Age of Impressionism are among the beneficiaries of that wise call.
With its refreshing depictions of greenery, I think this exhibit, which runs all summer, would be a great way to cool off on a hot day.