Seattle Art Museum shows big Impressionists’ little works

A review of “Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art,” at Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 10, 2016. The exhibition offers 68 small-scale works that offer personal tastes and personal takes of the artists.

Antoine Vollon, “Mound of Butter,” oil on canvas, packs a lot of emotion into a humble kitchen scene. (Image courtesy National Gallery of Art)
Antoine Vollon, “Mound of Butter,” oil on canvas, packs a lot of emotion into a humble kitchen scene. (Image courtesy National Gallery of Art)

Imagine this scene: Pierre-August Renoir and Edouard Manet are visiting Claude Monet when they both decide to paint Monet’s wife and son lounging on the lawn. They bring out easels and tubes of paint and work in the open air with all the spontaneity that is so typical of Impressionism.

Renoir’s painting is now on view at the Seattle Art Museum, one of 68 small-scale paintings on loan from the National Gallery of Art. Frankly, it’s one of my least favorite works in an exhibition chock-full of very good — and even great — paintings.

It’s a little wonky — even for Renoir. According to SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa, who organized the Seattle version of the touring exhibition, it prompted Manet to tell Monet that Renoir should give it all up.

That’s what I love about this painting and the whole show. There’s a sense of the real people who painted, with all their squabbles and camaraderie, their personal tastes and personal takes on the world around them. We see dogs, cups of tea, a woman washing clothes and even a mound of butter.

Yes, there are gorgeous landscapes and pretty people enjoying their leisure. But this exhibition doesn’t merely feel like another rehashing of crowd-pleasing Impressionism.

Every single painting is small. Every painting compels us to get close, get intimate, see what the artists saw.

The Renoir, at over 2 feet wide, is one of the larger pieces. A 7-inch-wide Degas still packs in plenty of backstage vibrancy and voyeurism.

Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891), Study for “La Grande Jatte,” 1884/1885, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection. (Image courtesy National Gallery of Art)
Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891), Study for “La Grande Jatte,” 1884/1885, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection. (Image courtesy National Gallery of Art)

The scale and familiarity suggests that some paintings weren’t intended for exhibition and were, instead, given as gifts or bartered for other paintings. Eventually, the Mellon family, particularly Ailsa Mellon Bruce, scooped them up, lived with them for a while, and then gave them to the National Gallery of Art. Seattle is the last stop before the works go home to their newly renovated wing in D.C.

Most of the big names are here: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh, among others. Visitors can dig into Eugène Boudin, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, who each have a gallery for their works. Vuillard’s bold, flat paintings deserve sustained attention.

There are a few surprises from Manet (who knew the edgy artist could paint such an adorable King Charles spaniel?) and there’s a Cézanne still life worth poring over. Rather than knocking out a perfect illusion of reality, he labored over sections, painting exactly what he saw. The result is wonderfully off-kilter, complete with a tipped fruit bowl.

Antoine Vollon’s “Mound of Butter” is astonishing. It’s both monumental and ethereal with a dollop of sensuality. Yes, all of that in a mound of butter.

You might be saying, “Hold on. Some of those folks aren’t Impressionists.” You’re right. We get bonus material in this show, which begins with the 1860s — the decade before the Impressionists first began exhibiting together (not as “Impressionists,” which was a derogatory term slapped on by critics who despised the loose brushwork).

The show moves through Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and ends with Bonnard and a painting from 1942-44. You’d never guess that the bright garden scene was painted in occupied France.

Like most Impressionist paintings, it emphasizes paint handling, point of view, the qualities of light and the comfortable pleasures of daily life. This pleasure explains the long lasting popularity of Impressionism, after it shook off its initial detractors, of course.

Many of us know that public, heroic history of Impressionism. Curator Ishikawa states that this show offers a private, personal history, revealing the artists’ “tender regard for the unremarkable moments of life.” They painted all the time, in their homes, in their friends’ homes, in the city streets, and on the beach, after taking the new railway from Paris to the coast.

This is not an info-heavy show. There was less documentation of these smaller pieces than their bigger, more exhibited brethren. There’s something refreshing about that. We can simply look, see from the artists’ perspectives, and guess what compelled them to set up a small canvas or board and begin to paint a green table, a child wearing a red scarf or a mound of butter.

By Gayle Clemans

Source: The Seattle Times

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