Face to Face
BMA Showcases the People Who Posed for the Impressionists
The group exhibit Impressionists in Winter, which ran last fall and winter at the Phillips Collection in Washington, presented snowy scenes by artists more often associated with sunny landscapes. The new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Faces of Impressionism: Portraits From American Collections, focuses on humans who were the subjects of the loose brushwork associated with that style.
This nationally touring exhibit was organized by the BMA and curated by Sona Johnston, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture before 1900. She's thoughtfully picked a beautiful selection of 56 paintings, arranged them chronologically by decade, and provided enough wall texts to help set the scene and show Impressionism's rapid evolution in the final decades of the 19th century.
The exhibit might not offer striking reassessments of the essential nature of Impressionism, but it makes us consider how these artists created portraits in which nature often played a subordinate and sometimes even nonexistent role. The show displays up-close-and-personal views of the relatives, friends, and just plain ordinary people who posed for the slice-of-real-life-hungry Impressionists. You'll see no idealizedmuch less mythicsubjects in these paintings. Rebelling against the reigning academic conventions, the Impressionists sought beauty in the mundane.
If this emphasis on portraiture gives the show a distinctive identity, it also proves to be one of the exhibit's more problematic curatorial components. Specifically, when is a portrait no longer a portrait? There are paintings in this show that depict figures in a landscape. Admittedly, the figures (or most of them) are identifiable, but does that make the paintings qualify as portraits?
This quibble can quickly degenerate into a vexed argument: Are these paintings of figures in a landscape or of landscapes with figures in them? Rather than agonize over the exhibit's expansive definition of portraiture, perhaps it's best to acknowledge that some of the questionable entries are among the loveliest. The best consumer advice is to enjoy the show and leave the semantic debate to others.
Another bit of consumer advice: Don't rush through the first gallery of pre-Impressionist artists on your way to see the big Impressionist names. It doesn't hurt to see from where the painters of springtime sprang. Before the Impressionists put their highly subjective take on their immediate surroundings, an earlier generation of realist artists was already tweaking the lofty academy.
Gustave Courbet's "Portrait of Clément Laurier" (1855) presents a dark-suited barrister standing against a very dark landscape. There is a brooding realism here. The portrait subject is not made to seem like some larger-than-life hero. He's not garbed in a Roman toga or given other flattering props to establish him as a French gent belonging in an eternal pantheon of great lawyers. No, he merely faces you, and his face bears a melancholic tinge.
Another early painting that resonates is the circa 1865 self-portrait by Jean-Frédérick Bazille. In stance and style, the artist's approach seems fairly conventional, hardly some precocious instance of Impressionistic brushwork. Bazille stands holding his palette, as if pausing from his duties long enough to capture his own image. As you also pause to take him in, you realize that the painting's predominant black, white, and gray tones make it seem nearly monochromatic. However, the palette Bazille holds is swirling with rivers of yellow, green, white, and red paint. Not only does this burst of color call attention to Bazille's genuine identity, but it seems to be a moving premonition of the Impressionist movement that would burst onto the French art scene in the early 1870s. (Sadly, Bazille would not live to share in it; he died in battle in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.)
Once the exhibit moves into the 1870s, it provides many examples of the stylistic verve that made the French Impressionists so distinctive. Obviously, many Impressionist exhibits have done the same thing. What sets this show apart is how astutely it traces the personal connections that seem to have led everyone to know (and pose for) everyone else.
Édouard Manet's "Berthe Morisot" (circa 1869) is a portrait of his sister-in-law, who became a major artist in her own right. Take note of the versatile paint handling in this portrait. Although Manet was somewhat older than the Impressionist gang and generally painted with more realistic restraint, he could fling paint with the best of them. Manet uses seemingly spontaneous brushwork to depict Morisot's hands nestled in a muff, but he uses more studious detail to present her face and piled-high hair.
Although it is not surprising to see this mixture of loose and tight brushwork from the masterful Manet, it's notable that many of the Impressionists also employed it in their portraiture, and that they had a more varied stylistic repertory than they are sometimes given credit for.
Another instance of one artist painting another is Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Monet Working in His Garden at Argenteuil" (1873). We see Monet standing before his easel and painting dahlias in his garden. Some buildings in the distance suggest a village setting, but Monet is so immersed in his activity that nothing matters save the Impressionist painter communing with nature.
The exhibit's savvy selection and installation allow you to consider the works in several regards. You can focus on the relationships between artists and their sitters (who were usually either relatives, fellow artists, or friends). You can consider how interior domestic space is treatedhow the ordinary furnishings of a room and the room's architecture frame a subject and add to our psychological understanding. You can focus on how figures in a landscape are so harmoniously related as to fuse. And there are paintings in which these assorted considerations come together in various ways.
One of the exhibit's most complex paintings, both spatially and psychologically, is Oscar-Claude Monet's "La Capeline Rouge (The Red Cape, Camille Monet in the Snow)" (1870-1875). The unseen painter's vantage point is from within a house, the spare gray and brown tones of which establish it as a less-than-welcoming domestic place. Still, the artist must have been warmer setting up in that room than was his subject, in this case his wife. She's seen through some glass-paneled doors, standing in the snow-covered yard. She's wearing a bright red shawl that becomes the focal point for an otherwise deliberately dull-hued painting. Looking at that shawl brings you to her sad face. He's inside, she's posing outside. The marital implications don't seem encouraging.
For a visually sophisticated treatment of a figure in a landscape, look at Berthe Morisot's "Reading" (1873), in which the artist's sister Edma is shown reading outdoors and arranged on the lawn in such a way that her white dress seems like a field of white against the field of green. There are quasifloral accents on her dress, and the field is spotted with what amount to corresponding bits of paint. The sitter's green scarf is another connection between her and this greenery, as are the umbrella and fan resting near her on the lawn.
Because Edma's face is presented in blurred form, she seems to have blended into her surroundings. When push comes to shove, the depiction is realistic, and yet it has enough softening and expressive touches to make a touching impression about what it's like to merge with nature. In a poetic sense, this is a portrait not just of her, but of the Impressionist spirit that produced so many of this exhibit's paintings from the 1870s through the 1890s.
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