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Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting


Feature: James Haddrell

IN 1999, the Royal Academy struck curatorial gold with Monet in the 20th Century, an exhibition which attracted over 800,000 visitors in just four months.

Six years later, you can’t blame them for going back for more, but there is much more to Impressionism Abroad than the hugely popular dappled canvases of France’s most renowned painter.

In 1852, when Claude Monet was only 12-years-old, the Boston painter, William Morris Hunt, established a friendship with the prominent French painter and member of the Barbizon school, Jean-François Millet.

A group of artists working on the outskirts of the Forest of Fontainebleu, the Barbizon School championed the representation of real landscapes over idealised scenes from classical history or mythology, with stories from the lives of the poor depicted without romanticising sentimentality.

The first two paintings featured in Impressionism Abroad testify to the closeness of Hunt’s interest in the work of Millet and his contemporaries – a scene of rural sheep-shearing by Millet hangs side-by-side with a painstaking reproduction of the same image by Hunt.

The interest shown by painters like Hunt was mirrored by collectors from Boston who quickly added both French originals and locally produced rural landscapes by American artists to their collections.

A generation later, with Monet, Renoir, Degas and others struggling against the disdain of the artistic establishment and the press in France, painters mirroring the French style in Boston were already in great demand.

Towards the end of the century, it was Monet who provided the strongest influence for painters and collectors from Boston.

Lilli Cabot Perry, John Leslie Breck, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Wendell and John Singer Sargent all spent periods of time with him in Giverny, and in 1892 the first US gallery exhibition dedicated to work by Monet was held in Boston with all 21 exhibits drawn from local collections.

Impressionism Abroad combines Bostonian paintings displaying marked French influence (not solely Impressionist in nature, as the exhibition also features work from the Barbizon years) with French paintings originally purchased by collectors in Boston.

However, if the opening pair of paintings implies a direct process of imitation from France to America, what follows is a more complicated story.

The French Impressionists, with Monet at the forefront, strove to move beyond the political representation of rural scenes pursued by the Barbizon school, in order to focus entirely on the appearance of natural light.

Whether painting people at leisure, urban railway scenes or a series of haystacks, Monet’s primary drive was always to capture the effect of light and colour upon his subject.

Even Renoir’s group scenes or Degas’ dancers were often framed in a way that implied the narrative of the scene was incidental, that the reproduction of a visual impression was their primary aim.

The American painters included in Impression Abroad certainly adopted the Barbizon interest in rural landscape, but as the years went by they rarely matched the Impressionists in breaking down the formal realism retained by the earlier school.

Judged by the paintings featured in this exhibition, the Bostonians use of the Impressionists’ techniques was more about the practical process of painting than the depiction of light.

In Dennis Miller Bunker’s The Pool, Medfield, the long grass and the winding water are depicted with strokes of paint reminiscent of Renoir’s feathery technique, but the surface of the painting as a whole has a refined quality not evident in the work of any of the Impressionists.

In Bunker’s case, the strokes of paint signify the movement of the natural landscape more than the light.

Lilla Cabot Perry, who spent nine summers with Monet at Giverny, is represented by The Old Farm, Giverny, and whilst the trees in the foreground imitate Monet’s style, the background again has a smooth finish absent from the work of her French host.

Frederick Porter Vinton, who travelled to Europe in 1889 and subsequently contributed an essay to the catalogue for the Durand Ruel Gallery’s exhibition Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, is represented by La Blanchisseuse.

The subject – a woman washing clothes in a river - is in the spirit of the Barbizon School, a natural scene of rural life, and whilst the lilies in the river may allude to his admiration for Monet, the style remains closer to the earlier realism of Millet.

Of the American work on display, John Singer Sargent comes closest to the rough, broken style of Impressionism with Fishing For Oysters at Cancale, one of the finest works in the exhibition, displaying the heavily textured, painterly quality of a Monet or a Pissarro.

The hesitation manifested by Boston painters in fully adopting the Impressionist style was matched by Boston collectors – while Monet’s work was in demand, work produced by painters from previous generations still commanded significantly higher prices.

In 1890, Anna Perkins Rogers and Peter Chardon Brooks acquired works by both Monet and the earlier realist painter, Jean Charles Cazin, and paid more for one painting by Cazin than for three by Monet.

However, while it is easy for us to criticise that perceived lack of value now - hindsight is clearly a wonderful thing - it is still thanks to those forward looking collectors that there are enough French works in Impressionism Abroad to satisfy die-hard fans of the style.

But this exhibition is not, as might be expected, a demonstration of how painters from Boston learned to paint like Monet.

It is true that in Boston the French Impressionists found greater favour with critics and collectors than in their native France, and that the Boston painters experimented with this new style, but on the basis of Impressionism Abroad, with the possible exception of Sargent, the style that has been immortalised as ‘Impressionism’ ultimately remained unique to Monet and his circle.

Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting
Until September 11, 2005
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £9.00; various concessions from £4

Picture Caption:
John Singer Sargent, Fishing For Oysters at Cancale, 1878
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Related work by James Haddrell: Cloud & Vision - Museum of Garden History

British Museum: Mountains and Water

Barbican Gallery: Colour After Klein


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