For Claude Monet, the sight was more important than the site.
“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever,” Monet wrote. “Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”
Monet is considered by scholars to be the most prominent artist of Impressionism, a 19th century French art movement that focused on depicting modern life through freely brushed strokes and the liberal use of color.
“Impressionism made light, color and atmosphere into primary subjects, not just supporting actors,” Will South, the Columbia Museum of Art’s chief curator wrote in an essay published in Collections, the museum’s quarterly.
On Friday “Impressionism from Monet to Matisse,” an exhibition of 55 masterworks culled from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ private collection, opens at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Famous and elucidative Impressionist works by French painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Monet are at the core of the Dixon collection and this exhibition. But the show also includes modern paintings by Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, among others.
“Our collection not only looks at Impressionism, but what Impressionism caused,” said Kevin Sharp, director of Dixon Gallery and Gardens, a fine art museum and gardens in Memphis, Tenn.
The Impressionist aesthetic was in opposition of the academic standards of the period. There wasn’t a strict adherence to detail, almost as if the Impressionists were making it up as they painted. Critics reviled the work that created portraits out of the mundane, viewing it as blasphemous.
During a lecture at the museum last week, Bradford Collins, a USC art professor, said critics thought of the Impressionist’s work as not finished.
“Their works were seen to simply be sketches,” Collins said. “They were also not terribly pleased with their subject matter, because it was contemporary life, everyday scenes, and according to academic standards, art is to take us out of the everyday into a higher realm.”
The Impressionists gained popularity by being rejected by the French elite. In 1863, at the behest of French emperor Napoleon III, art that was denied entry into the Academie des Beaux-Art’s annual juried show, “Salon de Paris,” was exhibited in “Salon de Refuses,” translated as “Salon of the Refused.” The exhibition of artists that chose contemporary life over mythological or historical scenes was the start of a movement simply because people were attracted to human conditions of daily life.
From 1874-1886, the Impressionists held eight unified exhibitions, a rebellion of sorts against the art establishment.
“We have the great advantage of hindsight,” said Sharp, when asked about the dismissive of French critics. “(Art was) not supposed to be about the butcher walking down the street. It was just challenging in every way.”
Even more challenging was how many of the Impressionist’s presented images, as the sight was more important than the site — or subject. For instance, Degas’ “Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe,” shows a ballet dancer, well, doing something that isn’t dramatic or thrilling. But Degas, who used charcoal and pastel on paper for the 1885 work, reveals astounding beauty in the moment before an ornate demonstration.
“He was less interested in the finished ballet than he was in the rehearsal,” Collins said during his lecture.
In the essay in Collections, South notes the minimal use of color beyond the blue ribbon tied around the dancer’s waist, as well as the downward motion of her body.
“The action is simple but elegant, the color minimal yet compelling, the angle of view dramatic yet rational,” South wrote. “It is a story in an instant, a slice of life we understand and appreciate.
“We know without words how the everyday moment may contain beauty.”
But why a shift toward contemporary life? Why paint people in a social situations or, as Monet did in “Port of Dieppe, Evening,” render a sunset over a busy port as nothing more than a series of expertly placed brush strokes that caused the canvas to bloom with color?
“They were painting things that were real,” said Sharp, who will lecture at the member’s exhibition preview Thursday. “It just wasn’t noble, in a sense. In my mind, the Impressionists were way more real than any painters that had come before them.”
The Impressionists, it can be argued, were simply responding to industrial, commercial and social developments. Napoleon III was renovating Paris, a project that took more than two decades and displaced millions.
“If you live in that kind of circumstance, you’re affected by it,” Sharp said. “You just would have to be aware of the change occurring right there. It’s about becoming modern. Some people would say the modernism that we know started with the Impressionists.”
While the Impressionist movement splintered — even though Renoir’s colorful spectacle “The Wave” is one of the enduring Impressionistic images, he later said that “Impressionism was a blind alley as far as I was concerned” — it gave rise to new, subjective ways of presenting art through shapes and color.
From Henri Fantin-Latour’s richly detailed fruits and flowers in “Still Life” to Cezanne’s “Trees and Rocks near the Chateau Noir,” an image rustled by sharp color and the balance of shapes, to Henri Matisse’s liberal color predilection in “The Palace, Belle Ile,” the works in the exhibition, while not all defined as Impressionism, are certainly an extension of the movement.
“Impressionism was one of the most endurable aesthetics of modern art,” Sharp said. “It was the quintessential art form.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.