by Sheri Boggs
They were once the scourge of the art world and the laughingstock of Europe. It's hard to imagine now, when the images of the Impressionists have been plastered onto everything from coffee mugs to calendars. But in the 1860s and '70s, the Impressionist masters -- Monet, Degas, Renoir -- struggled not only for respect but even for recognition. The term "Impressionist" itself was haughtily coined by the unimpressed French art critic Louis Leroy, who sniffed that these paintings were little more than quick, unfinished studies - mere impressions, if you will.
But while the established artists and outspoken critics of mid-to-late-19th-century Paris had trouble accepting the unfocused perspective, ordinary subjects and vivid colors of this radical new art movement, those very qualities are what attracted later artists and made Impressionism arguably the most popular of all the art movements. By the mid-20th century, collectors couldn't get enough of the "luscious, squishy brushwork the public has come to love about Impressionism," as contemporary Seattle Times art critic Matthew Kangas describes it.
Two such collectors -- Janice and Philip Levin -- entered the competitive Impressionist market in the late 1960s. Although Philip died shortly thereafter, Janice continued to collect Impressionist pieces for the next three decades. Their private collection, which has never before toured the United States, is on exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture (MAC) beginning this week.
"The first thing to know about this exhibit is that this is a private collection, and because it is a private collection, the works reflect the personal taste of the collectors," explains Jochen Wierich, curator for the MAC.
Wierich makes an important point, for these are not the Impressionists you might expect. There are no Monet haystacks here -- no gardens at Giverny, no merry luncheon party by Renoir nor any Toulouse-Lautrec dancing girls from the Moulin Rouge. While all three of those artists are all represented in the Levin show, each is represented by unfamiliar and perhaps even uncharacteristic works. Janice Levin, it turns out, assiduously sought out only the unexpected, more atypical works by the Impressionist masters. Her love, it could be said, was for the minor works by major Impressionist artists.
"This was a deliberate decision," says Wierich. "These works were collected primarily for decorative purposes, to be hung in the home and to be a part of the owner's daily life."
The show's catalog, The Janice H. Levin Collection of French Art, does indeed show several pictures of the Levins' elegantly appointed New York apartment. A stately Modigliani hangs on one wall; through a doorway, you can see a Degas sculpture on the piano and a Mary Cassatt piece nearby. It's the sort of decor few of us can imagine, yet for Janice Levin, it was merely "home." Perhaps she brushed her teeth within the periphery of a vibrant Monet explosion of chrysanthemums or entertained guests under the smirking gaze of a Picasso jester.
Looking Past Paris
As Wierich points out, "these are not the showpieces that would become the trademark of the Impressionist movement" and yet, they are invaluable as windows into the period -- both from historic and art world perspectives. The show is arranged mostly chronologically, and the first few paintings are the most seemingly unremarkable. Eugene Boudin's small canvases of the beach at Trouville show simple scenes of mid-19th-century seaside recreation -- there are billowing skirts, red-and-white striped umbrellas, comical little "changing tents." Boudin sold many such pieces in a nearby frame shop, and their purpose seems more decorative than revolutionary. In fact, there is absolutely nothing outrageous about these paintings, but they do reveal a new artistic sensibility on the horizon.
"This was very different from what was going on in Paris," says Wierich. "The Salon in Paris, that was where the 'big art' was. The art there was serious, classical and traditional. But Boudin and artists like him ignored that tradition. They turned away from that world and found their inspiration and subject matter in the outdoors."
This, of course, turned out to be one of the hallmarks of the Impressionist movement, the shifting colors of an object over time -- Notre Dame Cathedral, say, or simple mounds of hay -- whether from dawn to dusk or across successive seasons.
"You have to project yourself into this environment in order to understand how radical it was for these artists to attempt to light, to try to capture natural light, not create it indoors," explains Wierich.
Impressionism's fascination with rural scenes is consistently evoked throughout the show. Camille Pissarro, in particular, hones in on the comforting images of a roundish woman digging in the garden with a hoe and two women picking apples, all completely absorbed in the tasks at hand. Nearby, Renoir offers some surprisingly bright cottages on the Seine. Again, these images offer clues into what was happening in Paris and how some artists chose to react.
"At the time these artists were working, there was also kind of a major campaign to gentrify Paris. The large circles and squares, the boulevards that we now associate with Paris, were created in the 1850s and 1860s under Napoleon III. But the medieval Paris -- the Paris with dark little alleys and so on -- whole neighborhoods of the old Paris were redesigned or erased altogether. These artists turned away from that and found refuge in rural scenes."
Impressions of Femininity
Even when the Impressionists did depict Paris, many chose to do so in a sort of sideways fashion. Berthe Morisot's
Corner of Paris, Seen From Passy is notable in that, except for the famous bridge at Le Pont d'Lena, you can hardly tell it's Paris at all. The foreground is dominated by a big tumble of burnt umber and variegated green underbrush. Only in the distance can you detect a city alongside the river.
"The Impressionists wouldn't take typical views," Wierich says. "They often preferred angles and perspectives from off the beaten path."
Berthe Morisot's presence in the show brings up some interesting points about women in this movement, both as artists and as subjects. While female artists within the movement were relatively few -- and this show includes the two most well known, Morisot and Mary Cassatt -- they did enjoy a certain measure of artistic respect within their circle.
"In terms of their place alongside the male Impressionists, they were in some ways equal partners," asserts Wierich. "But in some ways, they were quite different. An upper-middle-class woman couldn't walk into certain parts of Paris. It was too risque."
As for how women were portrayed, Impressionism offered for the first time a more unstudied, less rigid view of femininity. For example, Renoir's Seated Female Nude (or After the Bath) is a rare image of naked femininity in which the subject seems completely indifferent, in fact oblivious, to the viewer. While Renoir seems rather captivated by his model's rosy skin and burnished, tousled hair, the girl's face is invisible and her form self-contained. In a similar (however more clothed) fashion, Morisot's Young Woman on a Sofa is a lovely and self-indulgent moment of daydreaming. Reclining on an Empire chaise lounge, the figure appears unfortunately corseted but is otherwise allowed to relax into the wordless pleasures of spacing out.
And finally, Mary Cassatt's Young Woman Holding a Handkerchief to Her Chin is deceptively simple yet deliciously enigmatic. Is the girl in the rose-decorated cloche stifling a laugh? About to cry? Or simply suffering from a head cold? There's no way to tell for sure, and that is its greatest charm.
Witnessing the Unexpected
"The Impressionist Eye" also extends a curious dialogue between what is in the collection and what isn't. Monet, of course, was most notorious for his riotous, blowsy gardens, his water lilies and his unfocused images of Notre Dame at dawn and twilight. Here, however, he's represented by a single image: a simple bunch of chrysanthemums in a green ceramic jar. Look closer, though, and the muscular little strokes, the raised paint of each petal, suggest the physically aggressive style of Van Gogh (who was, for whatever reason, not collected by the Levins).
A similar synchronicity takes place between two pieces that
are in this show. The one piece by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A Country Outing, was executed early in his career and exhibits not a trace of dancehall antics nor this artist's favorite vices of absinthe, cigarettes and loose women. Three figures -- two men and a woman -- lounge in what looks like a chasm of haystacks or maybe a cleft in an August hillside. The woman's bearing is proper and upright; the two men are more relaxed, but everyone appears to be on his or her best behavior (even the black dog on high alert in the foreground).
In contrast, Kees van Dongen's The Parisienne could easily be taken for something straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec's notebook. A slightly contemptuous and fashionable minx perches impatiently in a straight-backed chair; the colors are the blacks, reds and oranges so favored by Toulouse-Lautrec in his later years. The composition suggests the simple graphic style of Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge posters, while the subject is undeniably a young woman of upper-crust society.
Moving Into Modernism
There is a shift when one comes to the works by Pierre Bonnard. His Woman in a Blue Hat, as Wierich points out, employs the "typically Impressionist technique of finding an anonymous face that momentarily emerges from the crowd." And yet there is something interesting going on with her defensive posture and fleeting expression of anxiety. The black sweep of her hat and the ominous black trees and stormy skies in the background suggest Edvard Munch's much more famous Expressionist work, The Scream. Already the approaching stresses and anxieties of the 20th century seem to be making themselves felt through the art of the fin de siecle.
One of Bonnard's later pieces, The Luncheon, appears to belong to a completely different era. A table heaped with food is no visual match for the woman in the foreground -- a bob-haired, bespectacled figure in a shocking orange-and-white striped dress. The clothing seems straight out of the late 1950s, and yet the painting dates from the early 1920s.
"This is verging on the abstract, and it's very unacademic," says Wierich. "Her arm is just resting on the table. It's a very natural view."
The trajectory of the show is most evident in an early Picasso sculpture (of a jester's slight, knowing smirk), a portrait by Amedeo Modigliani and a bust by Alberto Giacometti. The Picasso piece, while at first glance seeming traditional, is roughly rendered and playful. The Giacometti bust seems to take the same idea and then just lets all hell break loose -- the narrow head and oversized shoulders have a grim, choppy quality that seems to defy any attempt at smoothing over.
In contrast, Modigliani's Head of a Woman is typically elegant -- the woman's elongated visage, slight shoulders and minimalist hair dissolving into near-abstraction. It's a far cry from the prettiness of Renoir and Morisot, yet it owes a bit to both in its liberating inexactitude.
"Within one generation, everything changes," says Wierich. "This collection traces that development."
Publication date: 2/17/05