WORCESTER – Earlier this spring, the Worcester Art Museum opened “Frontiers of Impressionism” and watched the crowds roll in. Impressionist painting – that revolutionary French movement of the late 19th century that would launch a million calendars, coffee mugs, and untold other wildly marketable merch through the generations – remains the art world’s most inexhaustibly renewable resource, the surest of sure things. To borrow a phrase: If you hang them, they will surely come.
I’ll admit the show feels a little out of step with the moment in this era of re-examination and interrogation of everything in the culture. Coming immediately after the Barbizon-era fixation on the noble sufferings of the rural worker, lionized by such artists as Jean-François Millet, the Impressionists can read as obsessed with the merely pretty, however extravagant it may have been.
“Frontiers of Impressionism” offers no reappraisal of the movement’s priorities; it is as blithe and beautiful, as the work itself can surely be. It begins with American painter DeWitt Parshall’s “Hermit Creek Canyon,” a gauzy view from below of the Grand Canyon offshoot’s river-carved walls in pale shades of ochre awash in radiant sunshine, a confection of a painting as rich and indulgent as whipped cream-topped cheesecake. Its imprecise date suggests Parshall worked on it for 36 years, from 1880 to 1916, a span that loosely bookends Impressionism’s rise and fall, making the painting itself an apt intro. The show offers a practical straight-line narrative of Impressionism’s development and eventual arrival on American shores— that would be the “frontier” in question — and how it came to insinuate itself in the country’s cultural DNA.
But the exhibition is also an opportunity for a little preening. Worcester was among the first institutions in the United States to embrace Impressionism, which was initially dismissed as gaudy, crude, and lacking discipline by an establishment still wed to crisply rendered Romantic realism. That fact makes the museum well equipped to tell the story, an oldie but still a goodie: Almost everything here, including works by Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and, yes, Claude Monet, with an iconic “Water Lily” from 1908, is from Worcester’s own collection. (When the museum opened in 1896, Worcester had great industrial wealth, generated by its textile mills, and later, machinery and wire production.)
Round the corner from Parshall’s frothy canyon and you’ll land in the dour run-up to Impressionism’s freewheeling experiments in color and paint. Here, I’ll admit, is the stuff that gets me: Corot’s duskily somber scene of a lone soul casting his line in pale waters in “An Idyllic Spot at Ville-d’Avray — A Fisherman on the Banks of the Pond,” 1865–1870, or his poorly named “The Happy Valley,” made during those same years, with its pallid, brooding sky and ragged trees looming above a solitary figure only discernible by the speck of his red cap.
Corot, who spawned the Barbizon sensibility of using a sullen palette to honor mundane scenes of nature and rural labor, was no Impressionist; elegy was more his style, a romantic lament for a world soon to be drastically more urban, transformed by industrial ambition. But in the looseness of his brushwork, the soft dissolve of branch and sky, Impressionism lurked.
Corot helped open the door to Impressionism’s extravagances, an enabler of permissive painting. In 1874, Monet, who began painting as a Barbizon School disciple (and an admirer of Corot and Millet), would stage the first Impressionist exhibition, guerilla-style, with co-conspirators like Pissarro, Renoir, and Edgar Degas.
The US, by and large, was slow to adopt Impressionism’s challenge to the country’s crisp, nature-as-Godly aesthetic made popular by the artists of the Hudson River School, the country’s first homegrown movement (American George Inness’s “Opposite the Palisades,” 1870, part of this show, feels like the first signs of slippage, a bridge from there to here). But by the 1880s, art dealers here were touting Impressionism as the next big thing, and it grew in popularity, prompting American artists in larger number to cross the ocean and carry it finally into vogue on this side of the Atlantic.
Mary Cassatt, the Pennsylvania-born painter who moved to Paris in her 20sand befriended Degas, was the only American invited to show at the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879. Her “Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby (Mother and Child),” 1902-1903, which hangs here, was the first of hers acquired by an American museum. Frank Weston Benson, from Salem, Mass., applied what he learned in France to portraiture like “Girl Playing Solitaire,” 1909, the dull gaze of its subject adrift amid the brilliantly busy shimmer and drape of her silvery gown and gilded wallpaper. Childe Hassam, born in Boston, studied at Paris’s prestigious Académie Julian and at one point took over Renoir’s former studio. His “The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning, New York,” 1911, with its pale scrim of curtain filtering sunlight’s glow on a vase of wilted tulips and on the satiny blue gown of a woman peeling an orange, is an emblem of the Impressionist fascination with the serenity of interior worlds amid the tumult of burgeoning urbanity.
The show surely takes some intuitive leaps to include American painters like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. I’d never put Homer, resonantly bleak, in this camp, but the spontaneous gestural verve of “Coast in Winter,” 1892, shown here, makes at least a reasonable case. Sargent is an easier line to draw: Known best for his melodramatic portraiture and society scenes, his “Oranges at Corfu,” about 1909, is a soft seascape fringed by a canopy of green. With its energetic stabs of paint, you can almost hear the sea roll, or the leafy fronds in the foreground rustle in the breeze; it feels like homage to Monet himself, whom Sargent had come to revere after meeting him in France decades before. .
But “Frontiers of Impressionism” does its best work truly at the frontier. It wraps up with greatest hits– Monet, Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Louis-Eugène Boudin, who famously gave Monet the good advice that he should try painting outdoors. But for my money, Impressionism’s mutations across the American landscape are, in some ways, its truest self.
Impressionism, Modernism’s first Really Big Thing, was about liberation — to reflect not the world as it appeared but as it felt in a deeply subjective way. To me that’s always meant there was really no right way to do it, and it was wildly energizing to see work by the underheralded American John Henry Twachtman, whose rough gestural renderings of landscape with robust strokes of thick impasto seemed to presage a truly American revolution in Abstract Expressionism decades later.
Whatever you want to call him, he’s just so good — the thundering cascade of color rumbling and pooling in “The Waterfall,” about 1890, or the bleached snowscape of “The Rapids, Yellowstone,” about 1890-99, feel almost licentious, made, like Monet did, with immediacy in mind, and no concern for fashion.
The future barely intrudes on “Frontiers of Impressionism,” but for a single piece by Georges Braque: the electric-colored “Olive Trees,” 1907. It’s a signal flashing red of Fauves like Henri Matisse nipping at Impressionism’s heels, and the upheavals of Surrealism, Dadaism, and other bright shocks soon to come. Impressionism, writ large, lived barely past the 1910s, by then impossibly gauche next to ascendant Cubism that Braque and his friend, Pablo Picasso, had brought to bear. But its revolutionary stamp on the culture lives on, a gateway to an unconstrained free-for-all that’s led every which way ever since.
FRONTIERS OF IMPRESSIONISM
Through June 25. Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org