All Impressionists -- all the time

They're more popular than pop, more omnipresent than the Old Masters. But coming up with new ways to package them is the real art


June 11, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Is there anyone left in the observable universe who doesn't know that the Impressionists were great painters as well as fine fellows who loved life to the hilt?

There must be, because we keep being bombarded by blockbuster museum shows intent on pounding that lesson home.

Like the return of warm weather in spring, each new year brings a big new Impressionist show. This year's installment takes the form of "Impressionists at Argenteuil" at the National Gallery in Wash- ington, a mass-market behemoth that even one sympathetic New York reviewer drolly called "the umpteenth repackaging of an evergreen late-19th-century painting style."

"Evergreen" is hardly the word. Call it obsessive, even addictive. The more Impressionists we get, the more we seem to crave.

A quick search of the National Gallery's archives reveals that since the 1950s the museum has mounted more than 24 shows devoted to some facet or other of Impressionism. That's an average of one Impressionist show every two years for the last half-century.

Other museums have been no less fixated on Impressionism. Last year, for instance, the Phillips Collection in Washington did "Impressionism in Winter," the Baltimore Museum of Art put on "Faces of Impressionism," and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston basked in the celebratory glow of "Monet in the 20th Century."

Over the past decade there have been at least 20 major exhibitions of Impressionist painting in North American museums, ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's mega-blockbuster "Origins of Impressionism" in 1994, "Impressionists on the Seine" at the Phillips in 1996 and "Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age" at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1997.

In Baltimore, the Walters Art Gallery did Alfred Sisley in 1993 and Monet in 1998. Before "Faces of Impressionism," the BMA did a Degas show, "The Little Dancer," in 1998, and "Monets from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston" in 1994.

And that's not even counting all the shows in which the Impressionists slip in the back door, such as the BMA's "Triumph of French Painting," in which Impressionists are heavily represented, or last year's "Vive la France: French Treasures From the Middle Ages to Monet" at the Walters, which had its own small Impressionist contingent.

What accounts for the perennial allure of this happy bunch of French bohemians? Well, first there are the luscious colors, the picturesque landscapes, the dazzling motifs of flowers, pretty girls and handsome young men. These are simply some of the loveliest pictures ever painted.

And from an art history point of view, there's still a lot to be discovered in these mostly sunny scenes of nature's bounty. Fifty years ago art historians and museum curators were still arguing the case for Impressionism's inclusion in the great canon of Western art. The opposition never had a chance.

Twenty-five years ago museum calendars were awash in monographic exhibitions of individual Impressionist artists, focusing on the evolution of each painter's style.

Most recently, the Impressionists have been scrutinized thematically, with shows focusing on their formal innovations in portraiture, landscape and still life and their treatment of specific times and places in the movement's development.

Still, one wonders how long this can go on. Certainly there's no end in sight anytime soon, largely because museum officials love the Impressionists since they almost always guarantee huge ticket sales.

Many people have to be coaxed into revisiting the Renaissance or charmed into appreciating the pomp and splendor of Baroque or 18th-century art. They will tolerate Picasso and the early modernists mostly because they've been taught to, but only to a point. As for contemporary art, the majority of museum-goers still find the art of today intimidating, incomprehensible or just plain silly.

Put on an Impressionist show, however, and audiences will flock to your door. Impressionism is by now a self-marketing commodity whose aura of stylish good taste extends well beyond the museum's walls.

Popular media from movies to fashion photos to car ads mimic the dreamy dappled look. Madison Avenue has learned you can sell practically anything -- including the Marlboro Man -- that bears any resemblance, however small, to the magical Impressionist style.

So, given the ubiquity of its appeal, we can look forward to at least another half century or so of unremitting Impressionist evangelism. And that's not necessarily all bad, either.

Remember, Impressionism was one of the most interesting movements in the whole history of Western art. It is surely worthy of serious and sustained study, and there are still a lot of great paintings waiting to be put together in new ways that will teach us to see it with fresh eyes.

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