Radicals slow to make an impression

An Irishwoman’s Diary about a painting movement

Thu, Apr 17, 2014, 02:00

April 1874. Crowds gather outside Nadar’s studio in the Boulevard des Capucines, lent by the photographer for the first Impressionist exhibition. The public reaction is one of shock and incomprehension before the bright colours, assertive brush strokes and subjects from everyday life. Though critics are not as uniformly harsh as legend has it, the exhibition is a commercial failure.

April 2014. Parisians queue outside the Musée Marmottan to see 80 paintings from private collections by the same painters, including Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley and Berthe Morisot. Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, great-grand-daughter of the famous art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, is a commissioner of the exhibition. In the intervening 140 years Impressionism has become the world’s best-loved painting.

Durand-Ruel and the Irish writer George Moore made Impressionism known in the English-speaking world. The French dealer incurred massive debts buying up what the critic Edmond Duranty called “the new painting” from the 1860s. In 1886 – the year of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in Paris – he transported 300 canvases by ocean liner to New York. Americans were hungry for the “new painting” rejected by the French and countless masterpieces ended up in American collections.

George Moore boasted that he “watched the Impressionists’ art from the beginning”. But according to Adrian Frazier’s definitive biography, Moore “had not yet acquired that taste in modern French painting for which he later became famous” when he visited the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877.

Moore was close to Manet and Degas. The latter was a chief organiser of the Impressionist exhibitions. Over Monet’s objections, Degas invited more established artists like Boudin to participate. Manet, on the other hand, craved the respectability of the Salon. He never exhibited with the Impressionists, refused to be called an Impressionist, and tried to dissuade his close friend Berthe Morisot from showing with them.

The French public, like Moore, confused Manet with the Impressionists, who looked up to the older painter as an example. The painter in Moore’s first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), was based on Manet. The art dealer who snaps up “the Moderns” resembles Durand-Ruel.

Thirty years after their first exhibition, Moore was invited to deliver a lecture on the Impressionists at the Royal Hibernian Academy. As Hugh Lane noted, Moore was “the only one in Dublin to have actually known these painters”. Moore advised what became the Dublin City Gallery/Hugh Lane to purchase Manet’s homely portrait of Eva Gonzales at her easel, on the grounds that the superior Intinerant Musician , now in the National Gallery in Washington, was too influenced by Goya.

Eva Gonzales was the only student accepted by Manet, which sent Morisot into fits of jealousy. One has only to compare a Gonzales canvas with the Morisots at the current Marmottan exhibition to see that Morisot was a far better painter.

Morisot’s first tutor, Joseph Guichard, told her parents that having one’s daughter become a painter would be a catastrophe. When Morisot first met Manet, he said it was a pity she wasn’t a man. Yet Morisot’s paintings sold better than Manet’s. Critics of the first exhibition praised the delicacy and sensibility of her work. “Morisot was the real star of the first Impressionist exhibition,” says Stéphane Guégan, curator at the Musée d’Orsay.

To the consternation of her family and friends, Morisot’s painting of her sister Edma leaning over a cradle was hung beside Cézanne’s The New Olympia , a crude pastiche of Manet’s “ Olympia ” in which a client gloats over a nude prostitute. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, France was obsessed with moral order.

The name “Impressionist” was coined by a hostile critic. In a sarcastic review in Charivari , Louis Leroy mocked Monet’s “ Impression: Sunrise ”. “What does this canvas represent?” he asked snidely. “Impression! Impression; I should have known. I told myself I was impressed; that there must be some impression in there.”

“Monet’s was by far the most radical painting in the exhibition,” Guégan admits. Factories spew smoke in the background, true to the Impressionists’ desire to portray France entering modernity.

The Corsican mafia stole “ Impression: Sunrise ” from the Musée Marmottan in 1985. It was found and recovered five years later, hanging over a bar in Porto-Vecchio.

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