Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Monet and the Birth of Impressionism

Monet and the Birth of Impressionism 

By Felix Krämer and others 

Prestel/$65/296 pages 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Monet and the Birth of Impressionism, the new exhibit at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, is part of a worldwide reappraisal of the role of the Impressionist painters in the rise of modern art.

Last year, an intriguing exhibition at the Musée Marmottan in Paris focused on Claude Monet's iconic work, Impression, Sunrise, which helped provide the "New Painting" with an unforgettable title. Another major art survey now at the National Gallery in London, later to appear at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, traces the pivotal role of the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in the triumph of Impressionism.  A retrospective of the fellow member (and patron) of the Impressionists, Gustave Caillebotte, is due at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2015.

The Monet exhibit at the Städel might well get overlooked, given the number of other Impressionist-themed art shows. Thanks to an outstanding companion volume published by Prestel, that's not likely to happen.

Exhibition view of "Monet and the Birth of Impressionism" Photo: Städel Museum

There is no substitute, of course, for viewing an art work or art exhibition "in the flesh." The curators of the Städel have assembled a particularly impressive array of Impressionist masterpieces. But other museums have mounted great exhibits, as well, the jaw-dropping 2013 Impressionism: Fashion and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, being a case in point. 

Monet and the Birth of Impressionism makes a major statement (in fact several) on the Impressionist era. It takes works of art which are very familiar and puts them under an interpretive microscope. The results are often unexpected. The chief curator of the exhibition, Felix Krämer, writing about a painting by Monet, The Luncheon, makes a passing comment that could well serve as a verdict for the entire Impressionist epoch.
Questioning conventional interpretations of this imposing early work, Krämer states that "in Monet's Luncheon nothing is what it initially seems."

Claude Monet, The Luncheon, 1868

The Luncheon, painted in 1868-69, is a fitting work to begin a consideration of the exhibit and the companion book by Prestel. Monet's painting is deliberately restrained in the color palette he chose, shades of browns and grays, black and the silvery white of the table cloth. In subject matter, Monet took what appears to be a very conservative, prosaic theme - a family meal. Yet "nothing is what it initially seems."

Monet hearkened to Charles Baudelaire's controversial 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life.”  Baudelaire scoffed at the decadent Romans and medieval jongleurs filling the canvases at the annual Paris Salon. Instead, Baudelaire extolled a new kind of artist who would find meaning in the day-to-day reality of life:

He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’, for want of a better term to express the idea in question. The aim for him is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.

Monet "extracted" from daily routine a timeless image of family love and harmony. However, even in this celebration of one of the joys of life there are hidden ironies. 

Krämer notes that Monet was in desperate financial circumstances when he painted The Luncheon. The setting was a friend's home, where he was staying with Camille Doncieux and their son, Jean, born out-of-wedlock. Camille's left hand, still without a wedding ring, is obscured. She likely posed for the enigmatic woman in black. Monet was too poor to afford paying a model.

Monet delayed exhibiting The Luncheon, after it was completed, because he feared it would be seized by his creditors. In any case, the monumental size of the work was another controversial point. Monet chose a large-scale format that the art establishment deemed suitable for high-minded historical works, not a baby's lunch. In 1870, the Salon rejected The Luncheon along with Monet's evocation of Sunday bathers, rippling water currents and dappled shade, La Grenouillère.

Claude Monet, La Grenouillère, 1869

is well-known, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir painted versions of the riverside resort, side-by-side. The Städel exhibit displays a smaller rendition of La Grenouillère by Monet. The original was destroyed during World War II. Here is another ironic element in the story of Impressionism. La Grenouillère was painted in 1869, as people sought to escape, if only for a Sunday afternoon swim, the clouds of war gathering over France.

Napoleon III's decadent empire collapsed in 1870 amid smashing military defeats by the Germans and a revolt of the Parisian working class in the aftermath of la Débâcle

Jules Andrieu, Ruins of the Paris Commune, 1871

Impressionism arose not from a weekend jaunt in the country but from corpse-strewn battlefields and the ashes of the Paris Commune. Indeed, the original idea for a special exhibit by the Impressionists was proposed before the war by Monet's friend and fellow painter, Frederic Bazille, who was killed-in-action in November 1870.

Use of the terms Impressionism or Impressionist before the opening of the first exhibition of the "New Painting" in 1874 is another of the "nothing is what it initially seems" elements of the Impressionist story.

According to the endlessly repeated legend of Impressionism's birth, Louis Leroy (1812 - 1885) dubbed Monet, Renoir and the other "Independents" as Impressionists. Leroy, a witty journalist for Le Charivari, coined the term from a pun on the title of Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise

Amédée Charles Henri de Noé, Caricature in Le Charivari, April 16, 1877

Leroy's sarcasm certainly provided some notoriety for Monet's group and cartoonists aimed volley after satiric volley at the artists. But Felix Krämer's brilliant analysis demolishes the founding myth of Impressionism which maintains that the first group exhibit in 1874 was an abject failure and that Leroy's bon mot gave the artistic movement its name.

Basing his conclusions on the records of the Paris newspapers and journals who sent correspondents to the 1874 Impressionist Salon, Krämer notes that "out of about 50 reviews, only seven are negative, among them Leroy's satire." Furthermore, the term Impressionist had already been applied to several pioneering landscape painters like Charles Daubigny who had been called "leader of the School of Impression" in 1865.

As a crowning stroke, Krämer notes that most of the media criticism of the 1874 exhibit focused upon including works by conservative, realist painters in the display which were not up to the standard of the "lively, succinct, dashing, simply bewitching" style of the Impressionists. 

Impressionism had a very long pedigree reaching back to the Barbizon painters and beyond. The Städel Museum collection has rich holdings from the pre-history of Impressionism. These include works by very fine artists like Antoine Chintreuil (1814-1873), whom I am rather embarrassed to say I had never heard of before. (Chintreuil is not listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Art, either.)

Antoine Chintreuil, Landscape with Sunlight and Rainclouds, 1870

Chintreuil's The Rain Shower reminds me of Approaching Thunder Storm by Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904). This great landscape was painted just before the American Civil War and has come to symbolize the threatening political atmosphere leading to that conflict. Heade painted Approaching Thunder Storm based upon a sketch of an actual storm. Chintreuil worked directly from nature too. Perhaps, the rather mystifying group of peasant women - one of whom seems to be staging a sit-down strike - was simply an event he actually witnessed and was not included as an allegorical element.

Claude Monet, Summer (Meadow at Bezons), 1874

Monet painted a similar landscape in 1874, Summer (Meadow at Bezons), with a women relaxing in the field. But there is absolutely no need to wonder about underlying meanings here. By 1874, Monet and most of the Impressionists had completely discarded symbolism, allegory and historical references, all the artistic elements that had been used to justify landscape painting. The young woman in Summer is simply taking a rest.

Before long, Monet almost entirely abandoned including people in his landscapes. Monet's 1873 Luncheon totally marginalized his son, Jean, and wife Camille. Unlike the 1868 Luncheon, they are mere bystanders, literally "in the shade" rather than "center stage."  

Claude MonetThe Luncheon: Decorative Panel,1873

Monet's path to the Eden of Giverny was a road he traveled on before the actual beginning of Impressionism. The Städel exhibit includes one of Monet's earliest landscapes, The Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau (1865). It shows his growing obsession with the atmosphere of the surrounding landscape at the expense of all else. As Paul Cezanne later declared, "Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!"

Claude Monet,The Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1865

Impressionists who continued to depict people in their paintings, such as Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, were likewise more concerned with the essence of visual reality.They expended less and less effort on capturing the personal features and details of dress of their subjects. A fascinating essay on Morisot in the Prestel book recounts how she was criticized for her lack of finish. The writer, Ingrid Pfieffer, quotes Morisot, showing her extreme intelligence and grasp of the true nature of art.

"The eternal distinction between drawing and colour is childish," Morisot declared, "since colour is only an expression of form."

Berthe Morisot,  Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight,1875

As Impressionism developed, all of the Impressionists focused on representing "this moment." Time itself became the chief subject of their work. In another brilliant essay in the book, André Dombrowski writes that Impressionism's "quick and unfinished touch seems to have provided the modern cultures of speed - exemplified by the velocities of railway travel and telegraphic communication - with their first appropriately modernist form."

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal, Morning Effect, 1893-1894

Impressionism reached its climax during the 1880's. Neo-Impressionism, articulated in Georges Seurat's exacting dot-as-stroke Pointillism was introduced at the last Impressionist Salon in 1886. As Dombrowski notes, these revolutionary artistic movements took place just as the industrialized world assumed its mature form and time itself was standardized to insure that workers everywhere, from factory hands to Impressionist painters, kept to schedule.

Monet and the Birth of Impressionism, both the exhibit at the Städel Museum and the splendid companion volume published by Prestel, provide meaningful insights into the world that Monet, Renoir, Morisot and the rest observed and immortalized on their canvases.

If their era was but a fleeting instant in human history, the Impressionists certainly measured up to Baudelaire's injunction. Live in the present moment and "distill the eternal from the transitory."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City and Prestel. 

Introductory Image                                                                                                           Cover Image, Courtesy of Prestel

Exhibition view "Monet and the Birth of Impressionism" Photo: Städel Museum

Claude Monet (1840-1926) The Luncheon, 1868. Oil on canvas, 231.5 x 151 cm
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo: Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), La Grenouillère, 1869. Oil on canvas, 29 3/8 x 39 1/4 in. (74.6 x 99.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Accession Number: 29.100.112, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Jules Andrieu (1838–1884) Ruins of the Paris Commune, 1871. The Hôtel de Ville after Fire, 4th arrondissement, Paris, 1871. Albuminprint, 28,6 x 37,6 cm Paris, Musée Carnavalet Photo: Jules Andrieu / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

Amédée Charles Henri de Noé (French, 1819-1879) Madame! Cela ne serait pas prudent. Retirez-vous!, 1877. Published in: Le Charivari, 16. April 1877 Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo: Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Antoine Chintreuil (French, 1814-1873) Landscape with Sunlight and Rainclouds, 1870.
Oil on canvas, 96 x 133,5 cm Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Photo: Städel Museum - ARTOTHEK Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main / Property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Summer (Meadow at Bezons), 1874. Oil on canvas 57 x 80 cm Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie Photo: bpk / Nationalgalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

Claude Monet (1840-1926) The Luncheon: Decorative Panel,1873. Oil on canvas 160 x 201 cm Musée d`Orsay, Paris Photo: bpk | RMN - Grand Palais | Patrice Schmidt © Musée d`Orsay, legs de Gustave Caillebotte, 1894

Claude Monet (1840-1926) The Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1865.
Oil on canvas 97 x 130,5 cm Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen Photo: Pernille Klemp © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) Rouen Cathedral: The Portal, Morning Effect, 1893-1894. Oil on canvas, 110 x 73 cm Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Friday, April 10, 2015

Picturing Mary at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea

National Museum of Women in the Arts 
December 5, 2014 –April 12, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Theme and variation are such an accepted part of music composition that it is easy to overlook the role of reprising memorable images in the visual arts. We have grown accustomed to think of a work of art as a unique creative statement. It will never be crafted again or at least not in the same way by the same artist. Yet, many a painter or sculptor has taken an established artistic convention and repeatedly explored its subject matter in distinctive ways.  

A recent visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., reinforced the central role of "theme and variations" in art, specifically religious art. 

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at the National Museum of Women in the Arts has been on my exhibit radar since it opened in early December 2014. With outstanding works from the dawn of the Renaissance to sensational paintings by Caravaggio and Tiepelo during the Baroque era, Picturing Mary establishes the central role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the cultural development of the West.

This magnificent exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts presents the time-honored visual formats for treating the episodes of Mary's life. From these events is derived the Christian conception of Mary as the mother of Jesus the Messiah, the human, yet divine, redeemer of humanity.  

The "themes" of Mary's life and legacy are based on a very small body of New Testament writings. But the "variations" - the theological, social and artistic implications derived from the biblical sources - are astonishing in their world-wide scope and enduring appeal.

From the early Middle Ages onward, artists were inspired by the events of Mary's life. They took as their subject such events as the angelic annunciation to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. These scenes were painted, sculpted, carved and embroidered again and again and again.

Gerard David, The Annunciation, ca. 1490

Picturing Mary focuses upon Marian imagery in the classic Western artistic conventions. The exhibit does not examine the role of Mary in the icon painting of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. In an earlier post, I reviewed the Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium exhibit which appeared at the National Gallery in Washington. The fascinating ways that Mary was - and continues to be - depicted in Orthodox icons was an important feature of that great exhibit. 

Taking up the theme and variations idea, I want to focus on the way that artistic convention is used, reused and passed on to a succeeding generation. 

One of the first paintings in Picturing Mary that seized my attention was Fra Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child. This work is noteworthy on a number of counts. It was painted in the 1460's, a half century before Raphael's more famous Madonna paintings. The format of Lippi’s painting, showing the embrace of Mary and Jesus, had been used before. But the degree of intimacy that Lippi imparts to this scene is very significant. Fra Angelico (1395 – 1455), painted Madonnas too, but the emphasis in his work was spiritual, the physical contact between mother and child being more reverent and detached.

Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) and Fra Angelico were both Catholic monks who were accomplished artists. Lippi was placed as a child into a Carmelite monastery after his parents died. As a novice in the order, he watched the short-lived genius, Masaccio, paint his epochal religious frescoes and was motivated to become an artist himself. 
It is purely subjective to speculate that the tight embrace of Mary and Jesus reflects the orphaned Lippi's lost childhood. But there is a great deal of life experience from Lippi's biography that fuels such thoughts.

Although he was ordained as a priest in the Carmelite Order, the religious life did not suit Fra Filippo. In 1456, while working on a painting for the  chapel of St. Margherita in Prato, near Florence,  Lippi became infatuated with  a young girl, Lucrezia Buti,  who lived in a nearby convent. In the ensuing scandal, which is luridly recounted in Vasari's Lives of the Artists, Lippi was released by the Church from his vows. The son of Fra Filippo and Lucrezia, Filippino Lippi, carried on the artistic tradition, becoming a major painter himself.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child, ca. 1466–69

Another distinctive feature in Fra Filippo's Madonnas is the way he portrayed Mary with an idealized, yet sensual, femininity. Earlier Italian painters, even the great Giotto, had presented Mary as a more matronly figure. In Fra Angelico's Madonnas, the ethereal Mary is often hard to tell from the visiting angels. Fra Filippo’s blond, fine-featured young women don't look very Italian or Jewish, but there is a current of sublimated sexuality in his depictions of Mary. Lippi's star pupil, Sandra Botticelli (1445-1510), embraced this vision of Mary with enthusiasm.

In the Botticelli painting on view in the Picturing Mary exhibit, Madonna of the Book, another shared hallmark with Lippi is clearly evident. Both Lippi and Botticelli portray Mary in such a way that her eyes are seldom focused directly on Jesus. It is a demure pose, sanctioned by  Christian theology, to convey a sense of melancholy as Mary contemplates the fate of her son. This is symbolized by the wreath of gilded thorns circling the Christ child's wrist.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child, 1480-81

The artistry in the Lippi and Botticelli Madonnas is most impressive. Yet, the spirituality, indeed the humanity, of these works is unconvincing. A real, worried mother gazes with concern upon her child. Mary in these paintings looks away, lost in thought about something - or someone - else.

It is only a short step from Botticelli's Mary to Botticelli's Venus. Both resemble each other very closely. Botticelli is reputed to have modeled the lithe goddesses in Primavera and The Birth of Venus after the reigning beauty of Florence, Simonetta Vespucchi. "La bella Simonetta" died tragically at age 22 in 1476. The obsessed Botticelli is believed to have frequently included her likeness in his paintings. This has been disputed as no documentary evidence has been found to support this popular legend. But I think Botticelli's Madonnas, like those of Lippi, represent a trend toward the secularization of female beauty in Western art and a step away from Christian spirituality.

Botticelli's vision of feminine beauty has achieved almost cult status, from the nineteenth century rediscovery of his paintings to the "super-models" of the contemporary fashion scene. But the Lippi-Botticelli version of Mary never became the dominant mode of Christian iconography. Indeed, no single image of Mary and Jesus by any painter secured a supreme place in the canon of Western art.

Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510

The exhibition presents the entire range of Marian art from Albrecht Durer’s densely-inhabited vision of Mary’s assumption into heaven to the pleasing naturalism of Artemisia Gentileschi’s  evocation of motherhood in her Madonna and Child, painted in 1609-10.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child, 1609–10

The presence of Gentileschi and other great women artists is essential to this exhibition, presented as it is by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The self-portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola, which serves as the introductory image to this essay, shows that the visual articulation of this great religious theme could never be co-opted by male artists. Even before Gentileschi and Anguissola blazed a trail for women artists to the painter’s easel, other women had made their creative presence felt by depicting Mary on beautifully embroidered church vestments, of which several examples are on display.

Unknown Artist, Chasuble Cross, early 1600s

In his personal testament to art, Civilization, Kenneth Clark, wrote, "The great religious art of the world is deeply involved with the female principle."

Art works depicting Mary were absolutely essential in bringing "the female principle" to civilization in the West. Picturing Mary shows that women artists played a key role in creating works of religious art that continue to inspire millions of people.

One of the most moving works on display in Picturing Mary, however, was very much the work of a male artist. This is the glazed terracotta bas relief by Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, created around 1450. Robbia (1400-1492) was an accomplished sculptor in marble and bronze before making his key innovation, a tin-based glaze for ceramics. This glaze enabled him to create a durable, marble-like surface for terracotta bas-reliefs and even some three-dimensional statues which were kiln-fired in separate parts and then assembled.

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, 1450-1460

Robbia was a Florentine of the same generation as Lippi. Outwardly, his Madonnas  have the same youthful, demure beauty of Lippi's and Botticelli's. Yet, there is much more of a bond between Mary and Jesus in a Robbia roundel or bas relief. Mary's eyes, more often than not, are fixed upon her child, not lost in a blank, self-absorbed stare.

Ironically, the depth of feeling that Luca della Robbia imparted to his portraits of Mary and Jesus has partly undermined his reputation. Contemporary appraisals of Renaissance art frequently deem the ceramics of the della Robbia workshop as overly-sentimental. In the present age, which sets such a great store on “edge” and self-assertiveness, sentimentality is the short road to artistic oblivion.

There are other standards, however, by which great art should be appraised.

If you gaze for a while upon Robbia’s Madonna and Child and the other beautiful works in the Picturing Mary exhibit, you will understand their essential function. More than that, you will grasp the significance of all great works of religious art, be it a Madonna or a Buddha. These works of art are not created to be “pictures” of holy beings but rather to serve as portals to a deep inner zone called Faith, a realm of higher understanding where seeing really is believing.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

Gerard David, The Annunciation, ca. 1490; Oil on oak panel, 13 11/16 × 9 3/16 × 1 in.; Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase; inv. 27.201

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1466–69; Tempera on wood panel, 45 1/4 × 28 in.; Provincia di Firenze, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510; Woodcut, 11 7/16 × 8 1/8 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.3630 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Unknown Artist, Chasuble Cross embroidered with Pietà, Angels, and Saints, ca. first half of 16th century; Wool embroidered with silk and gold thread, 45 5/8 × 20 in.; Diocese of Prato (Deposit from Private Collectors); inv. RF985

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Rose Garden (Madonna del Roseto), ca. 1450–60; Glazed terracotta, 32 5/8 × 24 3/4 in.; Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; inv. R031