Portrait of a joyful revolution: In their day, the painters on view in the BMA's lovely impressionist show were the deviants of the art world.

October 10, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

You say you don't like your art made of pickled animal parts or icons smeared with elephant dung?

Then fuhgeddabout this year's art-world anarchy, the controversial "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Instead, hie yourself back a century or so to France, where Manet, Monet and their crew really turned the art world upside down with the first modernist revolution.

Today, that revolution comes to the Baltimore Museum of Art in "Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from American Collections," a fascinating homage to the art world's most famous former bad boys (and girls).

Impressionism, of course, is the painting style everybody loves to love. It's got beautiful colors, beautiful people, beautiful places, all in pictures you don't have to have a Ph.D. in art history to understand or appreciate.

It wasn't always that way. In their day, the impressionists were revolutionaries themselves. They outraged the critics and puzzled the public, who couldn't figure out why in the world grown men would make such funny-looking pictures.

Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas were the wild ones of the 1870s and 1880s, beyond bohemian in an era when most people thought paintings of people ought to look like Polaroid snapshots of Greek statues.

The impressionists picked up their easels and took them outdoors to paint under the open sky, patiently teaching themselves to represent form in terms of pure color.

What they accomplished changed the way we see the world -- so much so that today impressionism is something close to a lingua franca of painting styles. Everyone thinks they understand impressionist pictures, and almost everyone thinks they are pretty, even in works where prettiness clearly is not the point.

Impressionism most famously transformed the conventions of landscape painting. But it also changed portraiture, the bread and butter of mid-19th-century artists and the genre most threatened by the easy verisimilitude of the new medium of photography.

So we have "Faces of Impressionism," which looks at the ways portraiture provided Degas, Renoir, Monet and others with a new vehicle for expressing their artistic personalities.

Impressionism enlarged the conventions of portraiture, discarding the stiff formality of academic poses and introducing everyday activities into the picture to portray the character as well as the appearance of the sitter.

The impressionists' interest in exploring the personalities of their subjects (who were often relatives or intimate acquaintances) makes this show particularly fascinating from the point of view of the personal lives of the artists and their relationships with each other.

The show follows a chronological scheme, starting with precursors such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who championed ordinary life as a subject of art, and Thomas Couture (1815-1879), who stressed the freedom and spontaneity of the oil sketch and was an important influence on Manet and Mary Cassatt.

From there the theme unfolds toward the mature works of Manet, Degas, Renoir and Paul Cezanne, all of whom introduced innovations that expanded the capacity of portraiture to convey individual character and psychology.

The story is fleshed out along the way with examples from the work of less celebrated but no less devoted impressionists such as Jean-Frederic Bazille, Gustav Caillebrote and Berthe Morisot, who, in addition to being a painter in her own right, was also Manet's sister-in-law.

The impressionists were fond of painting their friends and relatives, partly because it gave them the freedom to concentrate on artistic problems without having to worry about pleasing a sitter, and partly to make up for the dearth of paying customers during the early years.

Starting in the 1860s, for example, Degas painted his sister and brother-in-law, Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, his cousin, Estelle Musson Balfour, his brother, Rene de Gas, and made a double portrait of his cousins, Giovanna and Giuliana Bellelli.

The portrait of the Morbillis, painted in 1865-1867, is a particularly poignant work. Terese's marriage to Morbilli evidently was not a happy one, especially after she suffered a miscarriage in the months after her wedding, and the anxious expression on her face, which contrasts sharply to her husband's haughty, detached expression, suggests vulnerability and a tragic sense of loss.

In addition, Degas painted his artist friends. The English still-life painter Robert Grahame, the Frenchman James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot and the American expatriate Mary Cassatt all sat for him. And Degas, a devotee of musical theater who became famous as a painter of ballet dancers, was so captivated by one Rose Caron, a celebrated opera singer, that he not only reproduced her likeness on canvas but penned sonnets praising her beauty.

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