Published: May 22, 2001
Impressionism at the Clark Art Institute
WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – Spontaneous, “unfinished,” and seemingly painted before a fleeting scene, the works of the Impressionists were originally hailed and condemned as a radical challenge to art. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute has assembled dozens of groundbreaking works – and taken a closer look at what was most daring about a revolutionary art movement – in the exhibition “Impression: , 1860-1890.”
On view June 17-September 9, the exhibition will present 77 paintings by the artists most closely associated with Impressionism (Monet, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley); by notable precursors (Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Charles Francois Daubigny, Honore Daumier, Theodore Rousseau); and by a major successor, Vincent van Gogh.
Organized by the Clark Art Institute in association with The National Gallery, London, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, “Impressions” has already been hailed as “a highly important show” by the International Herald Tribune. The exhibition is curated by Richard R. Brettell, a leading international scholar of early modern art, who is Professor of Aesthetic Studies in the School of Art and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Brettell conceived the exhibition, wrote the catalogue (published by Yale University Press) and selected the works, which are drawn from more than 50 public and private collections in Europe and the United States, including the Clark’s own renowned holdings.
“We have seen so many Impressionist paintings so many times that we have all but forgotten the risks that their makers took,” notes Brettell. “This exhibition proposes an experiment in looking, which focuses on the most radical but least-understood aspect of Impressionism: the evidence of the painter’s hand, as seen in works that appear to be rapid transcriptions of shifting subjects. We bring together these woks in the belief that the most benignly attractive movement in western painting deserves to retrieve a little of the oomph that it had in the Nineteenth Century.”
The “Impression,” as defined by Brettell, was not necessarily painted quickly, but it was done in such a way as to look quick. Painted directly – worked on the canvas without preparatory processes or intermediate steps – these pictures boasted of the artist’s spontaneity. They also suggested an accord between the time span represented in the picture and the time that the artist had spent painting. Among the most celebrated examples – on loan from The Art Institute of Chicago – is Manet’s 1864 “The Races at Longchamps,” in which the rapid gestures of the painter’s hand portray a horse race that rushes headlong at the viewer, and is finished in an instant.
As Brettell pointed out, Manet courted “an aesthetic of beautiful gestures and elegant construction,” which had its roots in the art of Titian, Velazquez, Rubens, van Dyck, Hals, Fragonard and Delacroix. His canvases boast of a masterful fluency of hand.
By contrast, the Impressionists who were Manet’s followers were derided in their own time for the seeming awkwardness of their work. They “made paintings that strain to hold together in the midst of a virtual chaos of gestures,” Brettell said.
“For Monet, Sisley, Morisot and Renoir, the beauty of the painted mark was not of primary importance. Rather, the urgency and sheer energy of its application were more important than elegance.” This “aesthetic of the Impression” was soon taken up in extreme form by van Gogh, whose works have had “a unique ability to engender other powerful vanguard forms of action painting,” from Fauvism to German Expressionism to the works of the New York School.
“Impression: , 1860-1890” was first exhibited at The National Gallery, London (November 2000-January 2001) and will next be shown at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (March-May 2001). The exhibition will be presented in North America only at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of the same title, published by Yale University Press in association with the Clark Art Institute. The 240-page book, illustrated by 115 images in color and 65 in black-and-white, features a text by Richard R. Brettell.
The Clark Art Institute was chartered in 1950 by Robert Sterling Clark and opened its doors in 1955, welcoming the public to a collection of artworks and books that he and his wife has assembled over the course of five decades. Since then, the Clark has developed into one of the very few institutions to combine an important public art museum with professional research and academic programs.
Set within the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, the museum is widely known for its permanent collection (which has grown significantly since the founding donation) and for its temporary exhibitions, which set forth new critical thinking on the visual arts while appealing to a broad public. The Clark’s graduate program in the history of art (administered with Williams College) is among the most distinguished in the world. The Clark Fellowships provide residencies for leading scholars, who pursue their projects with the support of the Clark’s renowned library and research facilities.
Located at 225 South Street, the Clark Art Institute will be open daily from 10 am to 5 pm while “Impression” is on view, with hours extended until 7 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Admission to “Impression” is on a timed-ticket basis. Advance ticket purchase is recommended. For information, the public may visit the Clark’s website at www.clarkart.edu.
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