Colours of Impressionism

April 26, 2018
Claude Monet, 'The Magpie' (1868-69)

Impressionism is probably the most popular art movement of all time – which would have been a surprise to those who participated in the first ‘Impressionist’ salon of 1874. The group was actually called Le Société anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, and included no fewer than 30 artists. The term “Impressionism” was drawn from a hostile review of that show by the critic, Louis Leroy, who was satirising a painting by Claude Monet.

There were others who didn’t share Leroy’s sense of humour. “The debaucheries of this school are nauseating and revolting,” wrote one reviewer. Another saw only “an insult to the taste and intelligence of the public.” Popular mythology would have it that the artists were assailed and misunderstood on all sides, but there were plenty of positive notices.

The polarising nature of the exhibition reflected the upheavals of the French art scene at a time when there was widespread dissatisfaction with the annual salons and the conservative nature of official taste. The defenders of the status quo saw the Impressionists as upstarts who ignored the most basic principles of art. Their admirers saw the movement as a radical break with worn-out, academic traditions.

It’s difficult to recapture that sense of turmoil today, now that Impressionism is the style of art most agreeable to bourgeois taste. Perhaps that’s why art historians keep poring over every aspect of the movement, as if we needed to be constantly reminded that we’re looking at a revolutionary moment in art, not simply a collection of pretty pictures.

In Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the organisers have continued this perpetual interrogation, searching for an original angle to view a group of artists who have been analysed almost to the point of exhaustion.

Curators, Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel, of the Musée d’Orsay, have chosen to focus on colour, dividing the display into six components. The first room looks at the way artists used black – the shade supposedly banished from the Impressionist palette. That exile didn’t happen right away, as it took some time for theory to overcome longstanding habits and predilections.

Influenced by Courbet and by the Spanish masters, Édouard Manet made lavish use of black. But Manet, along with Degas, was no textbook Impressionist. Both artists played strictly by their own rules.

There are four paintings by Manet in this show, distinguished by their expressive brushwork and skilful manipulation of darkness and light – especially in Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne (1869). One almost forgets that Monet also showed a fondness for black in his early work, while Renoir only gave it up on a temporary basis.

Édouard Manet, 'Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne' (1869)

Édouard Manet, ‘Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne’ (1869)

The other rooms are: ‘Snow landscapes’, ‘Painting light’, ‘Greens and blues’, ‘From Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism’, and ‘Rose and violet’. A lesser show might have simply given each gallery a colour coding – black, white, blue, and so on – but it’s much more engaging to look at the way the Impressionists painted snow; or to investigate what it means to describe an artist as a “colourist”, with reference to the way Delacroix would apply colours in broad strokes to be mixed on the viewer’s retina.

Having absorbed the colour researches of the chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul, Georges Seurat would take the technique of “optical mixing” to new extremes. His Pointillist or Divisionist approach, which meant covering the canvas with thousands of tiny dots of colour, would exert a powerful influence on the younger Impressionists. Seurat’s style, now called Neo-Impressionism, would even seduce Camille Pissarro, who would spend five years, during his late 50s, applying dots to his canvases.

For the Impressionists painting in the snow was not only a test of endurance, it was a challenging exercise in capturing bright, reflected light, and shadows that were more blue than black. The greatest of these landscapes, and arguably the major picture in this selection, is Monet’s The Magpie (1868-69). A black bird perched on a gate gives the work its title, but the real subject is a rural landscape covered in a blanket of dazzling white, raked by pale blue-grey shadows. It’s a painting that doesn’t allow the eye to rest. Looking from one patch of snow to the next, then to whiteness of the sky, is like watching a series of light bulbs flicking on in quick succession.

The majority of touring ‘blockbusters’ feature a handful of important works and a lot of filler, but Colours of Impressionism has a better-than-average ratio of major pieces by artists such as Monet, Manet, Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro and Cézanne.

Camille Pissarro, 'The Energy Road' (1874)

Camille Pissarro, ‘The Energy Road’ (1874)

There’s also a good selection of lesser-known works, including Pissarro’s The Ennery Road (1874), which predates his conversion to Divisionism but still seems to be composed of distinct patches of colour. There’s a raw, almost naïve quality to this painting, composed with a severe geometry. It shows a flattened landscape with travellers looking like silhouettes passing along a road that cuts across the bottom third of the canvas. The grey sky lends the scene a touch of melancholy, which is unusual for this good-natured anarchist. I wouldn’t have picked it immediately as a Pissarro.

The outstanding Neo-Impressionist picture is Théo van Rysselberghe’s Entrance to the Port of Roscoff (1889), a lonely seascape composed of thousands of tiny, coloured dots. Paul Signac was Seurat’s most famous disciple but van Rysselberghe was probably more talented. He executed the Pointillist technique was well as anyone apart from the short-lived Seurat, who died at the age of only 31.

Théo van Rysselberghe, 'Entrance to the Port of Roscoff' (1889)

Théo van Rysselberghe, ‘Entrance to the Port of Roscoff’ (1889)

Although museums know the general public will flock to any Impressionist exhibition, it makes a huge difference when there is a thesis or a framework of ideas to be explored. It encourages the curators to include a stronger range of work, because it’s not simply a matter of putting together a package for the antipodes but a chance to test one’s own theories and beliefs.

The Art Gallery of SA should be praised for the way they have presented this show, clearing out the Australian historical galleries and installing the paintings in bright, clear spaces, with natural light entering from the ceiling. This kind of bold manoeuvre has been a feature of Nick Mitzevich’s term as AGSA director. As he has just been announced as the next director of the National Gallery of Australia, Mitzevich will need to take all of that chutzpah with him to Canberra.


The Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 29 March – 29 July, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April, 2018