Friday, January 1, 2016

Impressionist Pictures that Impress

A recent visit from a young relative got me to thinking about some of the art works that I keep returning to and enjoying. Our cousin had come to us on a brief visit once before, but now she was with us to explore New York City with her grandmother and to see parts of the city which would be of particular interest to her.
Her list included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, important to her now because—even though she comes from a family that takes art seriously and enjoys many family visits to neighboring museums and galleries where they live (Tennessee)—this was to be her first visit to the Met since she had moved on with her education. She's now in her first year at university, and art history and art appreciation are now being taken very seriously.  

When she returned from the museum, her enthusiasm for the Impressionists was very evident, and she asked me to describe for her the Impressionist pictures that appeal most me. I told her, and I'll share these with you, too. It seems like a nice way to usher in the new year, to share something beautiful that has special meaning, and our cousin seemed to like hearing about the three paintings described here.

I had fun with our little conversation, trying to tell her why each of these pictures is special to me, playing with each one and coming up with my own explanations. She seemed to like the stories I told. The fact that two are by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and one by his close contemporary Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) probably tells our visitor more about Mr. Guy than about Impressionism, but I was able—I think—to give her a good idea of the period in French history and French art that most interests me.

As we spoke about the paintings, I talked about how these represent what is called "genre painting," that is pictures that tell a story of everyday life, with the artist giving us viewers a snapshot—we might call it—of a particular event or activity. And in most cases the activity in genre painting was not particularly noble or had anything to do with the aristocracy or gods and goddesses. Just a look into something happening at a particular place and at a particular time.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Bal du moulin de la Galette
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Certainly that's what attracted me to Renoir's 1876 Bal du moulin de la Galette. The idea of being with these normal, working-class folks dressed up for a light meal and dancing on a Sunday afternoon appealed very much to me. And the people in the picture weren't all necessarily working-class people, for somewhere along the way I learned that some of them were professional or semi-professional friends of Renoir, like Georges Rivière, the young man with his straw hat pushed back on his head in the lower right of the painting. I had for some reason thought that Rivière was a journalist, probably because I had read—confirmed in Anne Distel's Renoir: A Sensuous Vision (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995)—that Rivière had published a magazine. Indeed, he had, briefly. At Renoir's suggestion, he had put out a periodical called L'Impressionniste, four issues of which came out in April 1877—and for one of which Renoir himself had written an essay entitled "Decorative and Contemporary Art." Rivière was, in fact, a civil servant but obviously one who gave serious attention to his writing, as he ended up being Renoir's biographer, with Renoir et ses amis published in 1921. In the book he told the story of the painting of the picture; it seems to have been a very lively afternoon when Renoir and his friends got together and he spent time with them capturing their Sunday-afternoon leisure.

One fact about this painting I like is that it was in Gustave Caillebotte's collection from 1879 to 1894, when it was transferred to the French Republic after Caillebotte's death, as Caillebotte had—at the age of twenty-eight—written in his will that his collection of paintings should be left to the State. Bal du moulin de la Galette had came into Caillebotte's collection shortly after the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, in which twenty other Renior paintings had also been exhibited. The two men were clearly great friends, and in Distel's book she tells the sweet story that when Caillebotte decided to paint a self-portrait sometime about 1879, he used a mirror that also reflected a painting hung on the wall of his studio "which he accordingly painted in reverse." It was his friend Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette.

And a story I like to tell about this painting is more about me than it is about the painting. Once, years ago, we were in Paris with friends from Canterbury, people we had known for many years (as will quickly become evident). As we made our way up to the top floor of the Musée d'Orsay to see the Impressionists, I challenged my friends to spot my favorite painting (yes, I used the word). We walked into the hall and my friend Sandra took a very quick look around at all the pictures hanging all over the place and immediately—without a word—pointed to Bal du moulin de la Galette. I suppose there is nothing subtle about me, is there?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Le déjeuner des canotiers
Phillips Collection, Washington DC
Another special story-telling Renoir picture is the 1881 Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party), here in the States at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. It was painted on the upstairs terrace of the Fournaise restaurant, located on the island of Chiard at Chatou, a popular gathering place for boaters.

One of Renoir's best-loved paintings, for me it is always a treat to visit the Phillips and observe how the people viewing the painting just put themselves into the story. And why not? It's a luncheon you want to join. For a long time though, despite the fact that everyone depicted in the picture was a friend of Renoir, only two of the people according to Distel could be identified. In her book, she notes that the man leaning against the railing is an oarsman who was a son of Alphonse Fournaise, who owned the restaurant and the young lady playing with the dog (in front of Fournaise) is Aline Charigot, a dressmaker who would become Renoir's wife.

As it turns out, a few years after Distel's book Scala Publishers in London created (and it is offered at the Phillips as a "souvenir" book in the gift shop) a book "created after the concept of the series Découvertes Gallimard Hors Série (France). In this fold-out book, practically all the friends are named including Alphonsine Fournaise (Alphonse's sister), Gustave Caillebotte (the seated young man with the hat), Jules Laforgue, Charles Ephrussi, publisher and later owner of Gazette des beaux-arts and an important champion and collector of the Impressionists. While not a particularly scholarly approach to learning about the painting, the little book helps to introduce a very pleasant personal adventure into Impressionism. And when accompanied by Susan Vreeland's full-fledged fictional account of the afternoon party—called, like the painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party (New York: Viking, 2007)—anyone with even the lightest interest in reading about these people and what was going on will have a good time.

Gustave Caillebotte
Paris Street, Rainy Day
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL
And then there's Caillebotte's own masterpiece (that "masterpiece" designation is my opinion—Caillebotte painted many very special pictures, including the one for which he is probably most famous, The Floor Scrapers, painted in 1875). He had a hard time getting started with being recognized, and he was rejected by the jurors of the 1875 Salon, for which he had submitted The Floor Scrapers. Recognition did come, though, and I find I'm particularly taken with thinking about the time and place he worked. This was the Paris that had come into being with Baron Hausmann's renovation, just winding down in the early 1870s by which time the shape of the city had been seriously changed by all the many re-buildings and the many rearrangements of the streets into what we now think of as so elegant and grand. Caillebotte excelled particularly in depicting the new look of the city, and Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) is typical of his fine eye.

I specially love Paris Street, Rainy Day, and it, too, is on view here in the States. And just as a trip to Washington is worth it to see Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Collection, so is a trip to Chicago to go to the Art Institute and just stand in front of and be awed by this painting. The specialists at the Art Institute write about the painting's "unusual monumentality and compositional control" and it's fun to be viewing what one of the city's new boulevards might have looked like when it rained. Like many of Renoir's works, this painting, too, was shown in the third Impressionist exhibition; by that time Caillebotte was being considered one of the most active members of the Impressionist group.

I've loved it ever since I was in graduate school in Illinois, when I visited it every time I had a chance to go to Chicago. It came to New York a few years ago as part of a splendid exhibition at the Met, then went back to Chicago for a full restoration before coming to Washington for the big "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye" exhibition at the National Gallery last summer. And what a job the restorers did with this jewel-like painting! When I visited the Art Institute to see the painting about eighteen months ago, I was amazed. It seemed that every little detail was brought to life anew (and even the small white dot in the lady's ear—which I thought was a pearl—turns out to be a diamond and a very pretty one at that).

So that's my story for a happy new year, and I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to say a little something about how nice it is to have a visit from a young relative so interested in art. And to have her listen to me as I share some of my stories about some of the special pictures I've come to know and love. Perhaps some of my enthusiasm about these pictures will rub off on her. Or perhaps on some other young person.

Happy New Year.