A Place in France
SLAM’s expansive Impressionist exhibition presents a portrait of the new French nation.
FROM 1850 TO 1880, France underwent a great transformation as the country—formerly a collection of provinces—began to establish its identity as a nation. The old Paris, with its narrow winding streets, was being rebuilt into a city of wide boulevards flooded with light and lined with shops, cafés and trees. Photographers and artists spread out across the countryside to document what they saw—some capturing the rural and traditional, and others focusing on the modern and industrial. With “Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet,” currently showing at Saint Louis Art Museum and co-produced with Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, curators Simon Kelly and April M. Watson elegantly tell the story of the transformation with 120 paintings and photographs.
THE PLACE Early era black-and-white photographs hang unapologetically next to colorful grand paintings, and while they may struggle to compete visually, their content is meaningful. Adalbert Cuvelier, Gustave Le Gray, Adphonse-Louis Poitevin and Edgar Degas, to name a few, captured striking shots of trees, snow-covered peaks and other features of the French countryside that must have wowed those viewing them for the first time. But the paintings are the real stars here, which not only include the work of the Impressionists, but also that of their predecessors. Subdivided into seven areas, the paintings depict France from Paris into the countryside representing a stunning array of masterworks. In the “Paris and the Modern Cityscape” section, Claude Monet’s “Boulevard des Capucines” (1873) captures a moment in time on the Grand Boulevard that wasn’t there 21 years before. The scene looks quaint today, but at the time, it represented the height of modernity.
THE PEOPLE Handing beside Monet's painting is “The Grands Boulevards,” (1875) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who eschews the bird's-eye view, zooms in and focuses on the people: a woman with children, two top-hatted gents talking, a man reading the paper and a nun in full habit pausing to let a hansom cab pass. Activity is conveyed through the use of short brush strokes and blurriness, but for Renoir, the people on the boulevard take precedence, not the street itself. This pairing emphasizes how artists view the same subject differently, and one of the accomplishments of the exhibit is this juxtaposition of differing views of similar subjects as we traverse across the countryside along with the artists.
THE NATION From “Paris” the galleries unfold with an embarrassment of riches, through the “Monuments” gallery and then on to “Rivers and Forests,” where Gustave Dore’s stunning “Deer in a Pine Forest” (1865) dominates, with its towering trees and sunlight speckled on the mossy forest floor. “Rural and Agricultural Life” is a particularly rich gallery, with Millet and Daubigny, and Constant Troyan’s magnificent cows, but especially Jules-Breton’s “The Washerwomen of Breton Coast,” (1870) an impressive painting of a group of working washerwomen, who Breton elevates as the model of French womanhood—strong, formidable and hardworking—notably before Toulouse-Lautrec would present the feminine, high-stockinged, sensual woman as the quintessential French female, as in his “Woman Pulling Up Her Stocking.” Then on through “Mountains,” “Marine Views,” (with Le Gray’s photos of ships), to the final gallery, “Railroads and Factories,” where Degas’ commanding painting of Henri Rouart in front of his factory—which includes a railroad track and smoking coal stacks—is emblematic of the Industrial Revolution.
What becomes clear in this groundbreaking exhibit is that by documenting France unblinkingly, photographers and artists—particularly the Impressionists—were instrumental in constructing a new and formidable sense of nation in France through their work. The exhibit succeeds on several levels—for those interested in this period of French history and the birth of Impressionism, it’s clear how early photography helped document a changing countryside and advanced the art. Put simply, “Impressionist France” is sure to make an impression. The exhibition continues at SLAM through July 6.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, À_The Grand Boulevards,À_ 1875.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg