The Impressionist triumph

Review: It's everybody's favorite art, and it's at the Walters.

February 16, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

By now, everybody knows the Impressionists were fine fellows who broke through the stuffy conventions of 19th-century French academic art to breathe fresh air into landscape, portraiture and still life.

It's been pounded into our heads that Impressionism was the most interesting, eye-pleasing development in art since the invention of perspective during the Renaissance - lots of pretty girls, handsome men and an endless springtime of fruits, flowers and foliage under luminous, cloud-filled skies.

And even if we've never read a book, watched a movie or seen it re-enacted on TV, a mysterious seepage of cultural osmosis has apprised us that Impressionism was the fertile ground from which all succeeding art "isms" sprouted, the happy moment in history when a band of bohemians took on the establishment, and won.

Oh, did I mention that the Impressionists also created some of the loveliest pictures ever painted? No doubt about it.

So what else is there to say about Impressionism, unless it's that for some reason, we can't seem to get enough of it, ever?

Such musings are inescapable upon visiting The Age of Impressionism: European Masterpieces from Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen, running through May at the Walters Art Museum. This must be the gazzilionth Impressionist show in recent memory, but it's still a game of gotcha. Be as skeptical as you want when you walk through the door - halfway through this luscious exhibit, you'll have succumbed once again to the Impressionist spell. These pictures are so pretty they make grown men cry.

The Ordrupgaard is the name of the museum in Denmark that owns the 80 or so works on display, and it once was the private residence of a wealthy Danish businessman, Wilhelm Hansen. In the early part of the 20th century, Hansen bought more than 200 Impressionist paintings by Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne and Monet, as well as works by earlier French artists who had inspired them, including Delacroix, Courbet and Corot.

(Hansen also collected Danish artists, whose works are displayed in a second-floor gallery. Some are quite lovely, but the Walters' claim that these works "are just as worthy of attention" as the Impressionists is utter nonsense.)

Hansen was an astute buyer; at one time his holdings were lauded as the finest collection of Impressionist painting outside France. Eventually, he was forced to sell some pieces in the 1920s, but what has come down to us is la creme de la creme.

Take, for example, Manet's stunning Woman with a Jug (1858-60), one of the artist's earliest paintings, which depicts a tranquil young woman pouring water into a bowl. The model for this picture was Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch piano teacher who became the artist's mistress and, later, his wife.

Suzanne is shown in an ambiguous space in front of a wall cut by a landscape that may be a painting or the view through an open window. A woman pouring water into a jug has been a symbol of temperance for centuries, but though the picture contains many allusions to earlier works by Titian and Venetian Renaissance painting, this work lacks any specific narrative content. It is an example of how Manet appropriated the past and altered it to reflect his own vision of modern life.

Similarly, Cezanne's Women Bathing (c. 1895) features a theme the artist returned to repeatedly in his late works. The picture shows nude figures arranged in a landscape whose cool greens and blues suggest a lake surrounded by trees, but the composition seems as abstract and artificial as a Classical frieze. The scene is curiously dispassionate, and in his catalog essay, curator Thomas Lederballe calls it "a concept of joie de vivre that lacks both joie and vivre."

The show also includes stunning landscapes by Pissaro, Monet and Sisley, Degas' signature paintings of dancers, a lubricious nude by Renoir and several of Gauguin's haunting images from Pont Aven and Tahiti. No wonder Impressionism is the art everyone loves to love. This is the best show in town - and always will be.

Exhibit

What: "The Age of Impressionism: European Masterpieces from Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen"

Where: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through May 26.

Admission: $6-$12

Call: 410-547-9000

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