Inventing Impressionism

Perhaps initially more bleary-eyed than bushy-tailed, a dedicated group of Ertegun scholars were treated to a double delight in their most recent trip to London on 30 April. As has been noted elsewhere, the band of early-rising scholars had the opportunity and privilege of viewing the British Museum’s ‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’, accompanied by both the exhibition’s curator and Oxford’s very own Professor Bert Smith. Immediately following on the heels of this exhibit, scholars were transported more than two millennia forward to nineteenth-century France, having the good fortune to attend the National Gallery’s current exhibit, ‘Inventing Impressionism.’

Working on nineteenth-century French and Russian literature, I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing canvases that inspired authors such as Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Nor were my expectations dashed in the least. Not only did I get to experience some stunning landscapes (of which more later), but I also gained a greater understanding of how central a role Paul Durand-Ruel played in the movement’s history, both in creating an international market for impressionist paintings and in providing artists such as Manet, Degas, and Monet, among many others, with moral and financial support. Indeed, the exhibition’s layout mirrored the art dealer’s central and formative presence: with the exception of a single canvas, all the works included in the exhibit passed through Durand-Ruel’s hands, and the diversity of artists presented testifies to the art dealer’s catholic tastes. While adhering to a roughly chronological order, the exhibition did not resort to simplifying gestures such as thematic organisation; rather, each room revealed the heterogeneity of subject matters and artistic techniques characterizing impressionism. Fluffy, lacy Renoirs were juxtaposed with more interesting Degas and Manets.

While the exhibition aims to achieve a representative cross section of the artists championed by Durand-Ruel, there are nonetheless certain painters who figure more prominently than others. In particular, Renoir and Monet appear with great frequency throughout the collection, though, less in the case of Renoir, the selected works highlight the artists’ different aesthetic and representative concerns. From a purely subjective standpoint, I really enjoyed Monet’s treatment of Argenteuil in two different canvases, ‘Effet d’automne à l’Argenteuil’ (1873) and ‘Les Déchargeurs de charbon’ (1875), insomuch as they capture, in aesthetic form, the progressive encroachment of industrialisation in the French countryside. In the first, the contours separating land from water, and water from air, blur together in an almost Turneresque blaze of burnished ochre; it is as though planes of colour have intersected and bled into one another, making it practically impossible to discern the reflection of foliage from the foliage itself. In contrast to the colourful riverbanks, a factory’s chimney can be very clearly distinguished in the centre of the composition, implying a tension between industry and the landscape in which it is inscribed. In my mind, Monet’s ‘Les Déchargeurs de Charbon’ (which is also set in Argenteuil) is the pessimistic response to the earlier painting: deindividuated silhouettes, those of factory workers, unload coal from the barges docked along the riverbanks. The atmosphere invoked is stunningly dismal, with its isolated black figures and its miasmic, sickly green hues. Other treasures included Degas’s horseracing scene, ‘Le Défilé’, as well as Cézanne’s striking ‘Le Moulin sur la Couleuvre à Pontoise.’ Truly, the 30 April was a day filled with visual and spiritual sustenance.

Jacob Meister