Between the French Revolution of 1848 and the end of World War II, France underwent vast social, political, and intellectual change. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Richard Aste, director at the McNay Art Museum and former curator of European Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Jai Imbrey, researcher at the Brooklyn Museum, write that capitalism and nationalism helped spur “new definitions of the individual and the nation…[that] would radically transform all aspects of culture from music and literature to visual and performing arts.” Paris, benefiting from the new wealth of the industrial era, was the centerpiece of modern culture, and artists there experimented with many diverse styles.
A new exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens explores the dynamism of the Paris-based art world: French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850 – 1950, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, is assembled from their remarkable permanent collection. It features works of art by forty-seven artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Henri Matisse, Jean-François Millet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Édouard Vuillard, and more.
One of the first styles to emerge after the French Revolution, known as Realism, focused on bringing contemporary social issues, like discrepancies between classes, to the forefront. Jean-François Millet, the son of farmers, highlighted the noble yet harsh realities of peasant life in many of his works, including Shepherd Tending His Flock (early 1860s). Although his works were popular, especially with American collectors, many critics regarded his scenes as too tough for public consumption.
The term “Impressionist” was coined, and used with a negative connotation by critics who regarded their loosely painted canvases with pronounced brushstrokes to be unfinished, or simply “impressions” or sketches. Taking their name from the title of a Monet painting called Impression, Sunrise, this group in fact had very diverse approaches towards art. United in their dislike for the Salon, the most prestigious professional art society in France, they caused quite a sensation when they launched their first “outsider” art exhibition in 1874. The Salon offered art instruction and also hosted annual exhibitions for works they deemed appropriate. They favored so-called Academic art, or art aligned with the ancient classical tradition that displayed scenes of European history or religion. Monet and his contemporaries challenged the status quo and gained quite a reputation in the process. Like many of his canvases that explored scenes under different atmospheric conditions, Monet’s Rising Tide at Pourville (1882) is one of seventeen versions of this small customs house in Normandy. His dramatic and gestural application of paint echoes nature’s forceful conditions.
Berthe Morisot, who also aligned with the Impressionists, focused her work within the sphere of her societal constraints. Unlike her male counterparts, who often depicted lively scenes of Parisian life, Morisot is well known for her paintings featuring domestic scenes and women and children. Madame Boursier and Her Daughter (c. 1873) shows Morisot’s cousins in a relaxed setting, their tender hand-holding and their closeness to the picture plane further communicating an intimacy with the artist and subsequently, the viewer.
Odilon Redon’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (c. 1905-10), although inspired by the story from the Hebrew Bible, does not present a literal interpretation of that scene. Rather, this image, one of four of the same story he completed over the course of his career, depicts more of an inspiration of the tale. Focused on capturing emotion and feelings, it is representative of Symbolism, an artistic movement born of poetry that sought to use color and line to create dreamy scenes rather than literal narrative images.
The Cubists focused on structural components of their imagery. In The Village of Gardanne (1885-86) Paul Cézanne uses flat planes of color and compressed perspective to depict the town’s architecture, while the natural elements, most noticeably the unfinished trees in the foreground, are looser and more fluid.
Divided into themes of landscape, still life, portraits and figures, and the nude, French Moderns provides visitors with the opportunity to compare and contrast works across time and mediums. Similarly, visitors can also explore the Cummer Museum’s permanent collection for works by many of the same artists, or experience the recently restored Cummer Gardens to see a three-dimensional example of the type of outdoor spaces that so inspired artists from this one-hundred-year period.
By Holly Keris