Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, 839-6262
Through Jan. 13, 2008

Before we go any further, let’s get a few things out of the way. Let’s note that the term “Impressionism” was at its inception derogatory, coined in response to a painting by Monet titled “Impression: Sunrise.” Paintings by “those Impressionists” were not initially perceived as “beautiful,” “luminous” or “exquisite,” or as any other glowing superlative like those which appear in the brochure describing Landscapes in the Age of Impressionism, currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Which is not to say that those adjectives aren’t apt. Landscapes is, indeed, a beautiful show, full of images of land and sky, windows onto many bucolic, perfect days. But how to begin to see these “lovely” pieces as radical, as aesthetic mutinies? How to find the cultural anarchy, the punk rock, in century-old French and American landscape paintings? It wasn’t going to be easy.

The first piece in the show, Gustave Courbet’s “The Silent River” (1868), throws down quite a challenge. It’s hard at first not to experience Courbet’s brushwork as anything but banal. That spongy dabbing style has been so incorporated into dominant aesthetic practice that it is difficult not to associate it with techniques such as those hawked by Bob Ross, the white guy with the huge afro who hosts that “how-to” painting show on public television. It’s intensely challenging to reconcile Courbet’s own history, which reveals him as a true radical who defied affiliation with any school or society, whose works were decried as being willfully ugly, with someone as middle of the road as Bob Ross.

The next few pieces, by Charles François Daubigny, in particular “The River Seine at Mantes” (1856) and “Moonrise” (1877), begin to shake things up a bit. These were some early works that challenged the Romantic school of painting. Up until then, landscape painting had been more stylizedintellectual, narrative tableaux based on natural imagery, but ultimately rendered in an idealized fashion, with a premium placed on finish and detail, down to the last leaf or rock. In Daubigny’s work, one begins to see a more immediate relationship between painter and landscape, the expressive brushwork reflecting a kind of interactive, responsive approach to nature. Note the handling of sky in “Moonrise.” The use of blues and pinks and the sense of atmospheric light are a foreshadowing of Monet’s palette and attention to split-second luminosity.

We then come to George Inness’ “June” (1882). One fascinating aspect of “June” is in the way Inness foregrounds certain passages of the painting by rendering them with greater refinement and detail while other areas are executed with relative lack of definition, which causes them to recede, creating a kind of prioritized or hierarchical structure in the picture plane. Viewed in isolation, there are sections in “June” in which gradations of color can be seen as a precursor to Mark Rothko’s tonal explorations almost a century later.

The presentation of Landscapes in the Age of Impressionism is noteworthy on many levels. From the sensitive, intimate lighting to the non-intrusive but engaging educational “conversation starter” graphics to the deep gray tone of the walls, this exhibition has been handled deftly. The general chronological movement from the beginning of the show until the end works well, as does the dynamic grouping and juxtaposition of individual works (all of which are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum).

In many ways, Landscapes in the Age of Impressionism is a companion exhibition to last year’s Monet in Normandy. Most of the works represent artists who had an impact on Monet’s early development and later French and American artists who were influenced profoundly by Monet. While all of the pieces described so far set the stage for the work of Claude Monet, it is nonetheless startling to experience “The Islets at Port-Villez” (1897) alongside them. The painting explodes with an energized brushwork that knits together land, water and sky. The entire picture plane is activated in a manner that transcends representational content and pushes it toward abstraction. And it is hard to conceive how Monet was able to achieve such bold, brilliant impact with such muted tones.

For just a moment, it is worth entertaining the idea that there was really only one Impressionist, and that was Monet. In the way that few true geniuses ever emerge in any field, Monet undermined and irreversibly changed painting practice. Monet’s paintings convey the rarest of qualities, the impossible but very real sense that the artist stepped into another dimension of expression. Monet’s paintings are unmistakable. They all share an earmark trait, coming across as visual filters through which to view the natural world. Like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, they embody an integrity and intelligence of the highest order. They were made more than a century ago and they simply do not seem old.

The advent of photography is one of the great catalysts in the new painting modes of this period. Photography’s capacity to reproduce visual imagery and information precipitated a self-consciousness in the act of painting, raising questions about the medium itself, an early ripple in the pond that would ultimately lead to late 20th century post-modern practice. One painting in the show, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Vineyards at Cagnes” (1906), is a buoyant example of a painterly response to photographic representation. Renoir’s style of painting is almost vibratory. It brings attention to the fact that it is a painting. The landscape itself was merely an opportunity for the painting to happen. There is less urgency to capture the imagery in a literal manner. Here Renoir’s florid, spiraling brushwork is almost calligraphic. The strokes are asserted and overlaid until some kind of resolution is achieved. The painting retains a sense of visual kinetics, a precursor to another art movement in the next century, action painting.

Gustave Caillebotte’s “Apple Tree in Bloom” (ca. 1885) really drives home the notion that none of these artists belonged to a uniform aesthetic school. These were individual practitioners negotiating a matrix of influences in entirely different ways. Caillebotte’s work is singular. No doubt one aspect of Caillebotte’s signature style is the way in which he constructs the spatial architecture of the picture plane (in a way that notably prefigures the linearity of Richard Diebenkorn’s work one hundred years later). Caillebotte’s specific but loose, piece-y brushwork is another part of his DNA as an artist. His focus on simple subject matter such as the modest garden in this painting is another identifying aspect. Caillebotte’s imagery is not idealized. Witness the view here, of seedlings coming up, mounds of dirt, the red roof of a building seen through white blossoms of the apple tree. Here the sky is white, not glorified in any kind of blue. This painting doesn’t pull any punches. The sky isn’t any bluer than it probably was that day; the tree isn’t any fuller. What’s there is enough. Another identifiable Caillebotte trait is in his unique weaving of paint, almost a plaid pattern that reconstitutes itself as a landscape.

The final five paintings in Landscapes are a revelation. They provide clues to the show as a whole. (The exhibition consists of 40 significant works of art. Suffice to say that the pieces on view include work by John Singer Sargent, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Eugène Louis Boudin and many others, more than could be addressed in any detail in the space of this review.) This last row of pictures, however, establishes a dialectic between these five paintings, in the paintings in relation to the rest of the show, and ultimately in relation to a broader dialogue about painting in general. It was in this final grouping of pieces that the “radical” was revealed, in the way in which each of these works go beyond the pastoral, beyond the bond of any appellation such as “Impressionism” or any other limiting construct.

First of the group is Edward Henry Pothast’s “Rocks and Sea” (ca. 1923), a pensive study of rocks and ocean. The rocks are richly painted in purples and ochres, set against the lavenders and blues of the sea. There is a strong sense of pull into the composition, out toward the water. There is a somber beauty in this painting; it feels almost elegiac. Pothast’s signature imprint here is in his structured, almost sculptural way of carving out the pictorial space.

Two redemptive works by Courbet follow: “Isolated Rock” (ca. 1862) and “The Wave” (1869). “Isolated Rock” incorporates many of the familiar tones of the Impressionist palette, lavenders, pinks and creams, but the total effect here is nonetheless astonishing. Viewed close up, the work becomes a fuzzy, pale abstraction. But as one steps away, the image of a solitary jagged rock at the shoreline emerges, set against an early evening sky. “Isolated Rock” communicates an elemental poetryhard, sharp, cold, wet. “The Wave” evokes no less than a sense of awe. It is, in many ways, the same sense of awe one might experience faced with an actual portentous sky, staring into the mouth of a massive, angry dark swell. Both of these paintings do something quite rare: They offer the viewer the feeling of having experienced something rather than merely having looked at a picture.

Monet’s “Custom House at Varengeville” (1882) is a scene viewed from above. Monet must have perched on a very steep cliff to get this angle. The piece creates the feeling that the viewer is about to fall into the choppy seas below. This windswept view is in notable contrast to many of the other works in Landscapes that favor placid summer idylls as their subject matter. The ominous atmosphere of “Custom House” adds a welcome and surprising dimension to this exhibition.

The final work in Landscapes is Childe Hassam’s “Poppies on the Isles of Shoals” (1890). In a sense, the exhibition is unlocked in this single piece. “Poppies” is unquestionably “lovely.” It lets loose an explosion of color, the reds, whites, and pinks of the flowers, the gray-blues of the rocks, the azure water and the rich greenery. The painting is agitated with natural life force, it imparts a bright freshness. Upon inspection, it becomes clear that one of the ways in which Hassam managed to make those flowers jump off the canvas is in the foil of a placid, even sky, with one single wisp of a white cloud. The proportion of land to sky is brilliantly handled by Hassam, who carefully achieved the perfect hue of pale in rendering the whitest sky blue. This equation of one-third sky to two-thirds land creates a forceful contrast, resulting in an undercurrent of almost violent vitality, the underpinnings of a perfect day.