Day 3

I’ve never much cared for impressionist paintings. It’s hard to say exactly why, but generally it’s because they’ve seemed to me to be insubstantial.

But reflecting on our visit to the Musee d’Orsay that night in our hotel room, I realized something about impressionism that had escaped me to that point. It made me wish I’d paid more attention to the idea during our visit and caused me to wish I could go back.

The next morning as we were leaving the hotel the receptionist gave us unexpired museum passes that had belonged to a couple of guests who had just checked out. Thoughtfully they left the passes at the front desk, asking that they be passed along to anyone who could use them. And thoughtfully the receptionist offered them to us. So we had free passes to most of the museums in Paris for that day.

Cherie’s itinerary for the day had nothing on it but a visit to the National Modern Art Museum at the Pompidou Center.  Now that I knew indulging my desire to go back to the M d’O wouldn’t cost us anything but time, I asked Cherie if she would mind stopping in for a quick return visit. The museum was on our way and, as some of her favorite paintings are there, she was happy to go back.

It was seeing the impressionist paintings in the context of their time that had struck me. All the art in the M d’O is from the late 19th and early 20th Century. Of course impressionism is now immensely popular and very well known. But what was going on in the art world into which impressionism dropped?

So on our quick return visit I compared the impressionist paintings and those that preceded them. The comparison was striking. Here’s a sampling of some of the paintings just prior to the advent of impressionism. These photos won’t reveal how large the canvases are, but note the violence.

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Henri Regnault, Summary Execution under the  Moorish Kings of Grenada (1870) The painting is about 10 feet high and 5 feet wide

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Jean-Leon Gerome, Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight (1846) The painting is about 5 feet by 7 feet

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William Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil (1850) app. 9 feet by 7.5 feet

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Gustave Courbet, The Kill of Deer (1867) App. 11.5 feet by 17 feet

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Gabriel Farrier, Scenes of the Inquisition in Spain (1879)

And so on.

Now consider the kind of work the impressionists produced.

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Edgar Degas, Blue Dancers (1893)

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Claude Monet, Study of a Figure Outdoors (1893)

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Claude Monet, London, Parliament (1904)

So it wasn’t just the style of painting that changed. There was a dramatic change in subject matter as well. It’s no wonder the impressionists have endured. Which would you rather have hanging in your home?

The impressionist paintings are also much more modestly sized. Some are quite small.

I now understand impressionism, at least in part, as a reaction, and a much-needed corrective, to the prevailing standards of the day.

A couple other thoughts from my visit. Looking carefully at how the impressionists created the images in their paintings left me amazed. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it takes genius to make this…

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…out of this:

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I’m not so impressed with pointillism, on the other hand.

This…

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Paul Signac, Les Chateau de Papes (1900)

…is made of this:

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In my little notebook I wrote, “Monet is a genius. The pointillists are technicians.”

A final thought.

I’d never seen this painting before, but it made a powerful impression on me.

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Gustave Guillaumet, The Sahara (1867)

Sparse and bleak by comparison to most of the other paintings in this part of the collection, the camel corpse in the foreground is the only recognizable thing in the picture. Remove it and the painting might start to suggest a Rothko. I found it fascinating, imaginative and even risky. I also wondered if George Lucas has ever seen this painting.

OK, that’s enough for one post. I’ll have to save the Pompidou for another day.

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