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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24 comments on “Day 3

  1. Hmmm….
    Which is what I say when the topic is art. I never quite know what to say.

    So let’s turn to your own reactions:
    It’s interesting that you chose to go back and review something you didn’t particularly like before, and to actually come to appreciate its finer points (oops, no reference to pointillism intended here….)
    Most of us, by a certain stage in our lives, just decide to stick with what we like. Which may be why we stop growing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Bill says:

      I think my earlier bias against the famous impressionist paintings was based on them being too “pretty” and gentle. Now I think about that and my reaction is, “Yes. Of course they are. That’s part of the point.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Having spent many an hour in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, while on assignment in Italy, I can relate to that. I spent entirely too much time darkly overwhelmed and guilted out, retroactively, by the pictures of a bleeding Christ or sorrowful Mary. And then I happened upon Boticelli’s La Primavera, and devoured it like a huge gulp of fresh air. Next came Fra Angelico’s angels in their light and pastel shades, and I gave thanks again. Yes they were pretty. And that was part of the point — for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad you came to the opinion that Monet was a genius. 🙂

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  3. avwalters says:

    Impressionism was, in part, a reaction to the invention of the camera. Previous paintings made the effort at what we now would call photographic realism. Freed of the obligation to duplicate nature, and armed with new theories about the “revealing nature of light,” impressionists were free to explore new ways of seeing. The times had changed, too. Earlier art was limited by religious rules to depict only mythological or religious themes. (Hence the violence–they were storytelling.) Impressionists broke that mould and depicted images of common life. It was scandalous–outrageous. But in those familiar images, they were able to change the way we see color and form as “impressions” of the impact of light. (Pointillism took it another step.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Thanks. Good info. Makes sense. I may have learned that back in Art History 101 but if so I’d forgotten it. Whatever the reason, it was an abrupt and striking transition, both stylistically and thematically.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Bill, Thanks for posting these paintings! I don’t remember the pre-impressionism ones, but the Impressionist paintings, I do remember from the days of yore when I was an art major in college for 2 years. I especially liked Monet.

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    • Bill says:

      In hindsight I wish I’d taken more art history classes in college. A couple of my friends went on to be art history professors, but I got only the introductory basics: an intro class and what I learned from playing the board game “Masterpiece” as a child. 🙂

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  5. Thanks again for sharing your trip. You’ve given me more to consider about famous works of art. Love it!

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    • Bill says:

      The first few days were heavy on art museums and I enjoyed our visits. The large museums can seem overwhelming at times.

      I hope folks will continue to find these vacation posts interesting.

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  6. shoreacres says:

    At some point in my life, Impressionism began to bore me. But I’d not been exposed to the richness of the tradition, and its variety. I still remember the day I came around the corner in the Houston Museum of Art’s Impressionism exhibit and ran smack into Mary Cassatt’s “Chilld in a Straw Hat.” I stood there transfixed, for nearly a half hour. The only other painting I remember affecting me that way was Marcel Duchamps’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” It was published in Time magazine for the anniversary of the Armory show. I was in high school at the time, and believe me: we’d never seen such in our art classes.

    There are some pieces by Bouguereau that I really do enjoy, but they’re far from what you’ve shown here. I’m wondering now if his own work took a turn in his latter years. I’ll have to look that up, and see if he changed direction, or worked two tracks at once.

    By the way, I’ve found a wonderful Paris — Kansas connection that I’ll post about once I get home. I’ll be interested to know if you saw evidence of the custom while you were in Paris. It’s great fun.

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    • Bill says:

      I really enjoyed this comment Linda. I remember feeling little interest in soft pretty paintings of ballerinas and water lilies. I preferred bold colors and paintings that I considered more challenging or profound. That was my ignorance misleading me. Interestingly, perhaps, cubism still bores me, although some of my favorite paintings are by artists famous for their cubist work. I think you’ll be amused at what I have coming up from M. Duchamps. 🙂

      I’m curious about your Kansas/Paris connection. Looking forward to learning more…

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  7. allisonmohr says:

    Really interesting posts. Jim and I have yet to make it into a museum in Europe. Lines were too long, weather was too good, etc. etc. etc. One of these days we’ll set foot in one. If you go to London, the British Museum is just fantastic. Mummys! Rosetta Stone! Do you not love walking along the Seine?

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    • Bill says:

      We did visit the British Museum 13 or 14 years ago. The Egyptian stuff was especially interesting. I recall that it was much better presented than at the Louvre. There the building itself it so ostentatious and ornate that it is distracting and the Egyptian artifacts seem badly of place, whereas at the British Museum that wasn’t the case at all.

      We spent the first few days mostly visiting museums, but after that we didn’t visit any. We enjoy museums (particularly now that we don’t have kids with us) but there are so many other things to see and do that I wouldn’t want to spend an entire vacation in them.

      We walked miles in Paris. That was a highlight of our trip.

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  8. Scott says:

    I really enjoyed this one. (surprisingly… As I’ve never been much for art history or appreciation.)
    What good luck you got those passes! How considerate of the other folks!

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    • Bill says:

      I would not have gone back to the museum a second time had we not gotten those passes. It was considerate of the guests who left them and of the hotel receptionist. There are lots of good people in the world.

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  9. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, you write with such keen eye, sharp mind, and humble heart, that in itself is Art!! Thank you for these posts, very interesting.
    Before the kids, I used to go to the Chicago Art Institute and bathe in the Light of the Impressionists. Now we spent our museum days in Europe mainly climbing castles and soaking up the light of the golden meadows. One way or another, bored at times, or looking for something else, we are still drawn to the light that impressionism captured.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scott says:

      His humility is refreshing, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for your kind and beautiful comment Bee.

      I dropped in at the Art Institute a few times when I was in Chicago on business and had a little time on my hands. It’s a treasure.

      Visiting art museums with kids can certainly be challenging. We were asked to leave the Philadelphia museum once when our over-stimulated young son had a meltdown there.

      When we traveled in Europe with our kids we did as you do, and it was fun for all of us. Because Cherie and I enjoy visiting art museums though, we would devise games to try to keep the kids amused, to enable us to at least have short visits.. At the Louvre it was “find the Mona Lisa”. The down side was that they were so interested in that game that they didn’t want to linger anywhere else. 🙂

      Before visiting the Prado, for weeks I showed them pictures of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. We renamed it Butt Flowers and I think they genuinely grew to like it. Finding it was our game there.

      Sometimes we’d split up. Our son was happy to look at anything military-related and our daughter was equally delighted with horses. So I’d go with him focusing on the military themes and Cherie would go with our daughter focusing on horses. 🙂 I miss traveling with kids, but I am glad to be able to visit art museums without having to find ways to keep them amused. 🙂

      As a parent of now-grown children I can say from experience, enjoy your castle-climbing time while you still can. There will someday be time for leisurely visits to art museums. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Laurie Graves says:

    Yes, art styles certainly did (and do) change. I, too, think it was admirable for you to take a deeper look at art you don’t particularly like so that you could gain an understanding of it. I have done this with Picasso and with the minimalists.
    Sometime, when you are out for a walk, look at the countryside. Not close up, but at a distance. What do you see? Photo realism? Or something that is more impressionistic?

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    • Bill says:

      Fascinating questions to ponder Laurie. On the one hand what we see is by definition realistic, but at the same time it’s undeniably “impressionistic” as well. I enjoy noticing how things change their appearance during the day depending on the time of day and therefore the qualities of the light. I see that here on our farm every day. It’s both very obvious and easy to overlook. Monet’s series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral are brilliant illustrations of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. ReinventIngrid says:

    Great pictures and great post… on the relatively small sizes of the Impressionist canvases, one reason is that they painted mostly en plein air as opposed to a studio. With the advent of zinc tubes, they could carry smaller canvases and their paint and paint “the sensation” directly from Nature.

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    • Bill says:

      Very interesting. That makes sense. Thanks for sharing. The contrast between the small Impressionist paintings and the massive ones from the preceding era was striking.

      Like

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