PROVIDENCE — “Inventing Impressionism,” a two-room show at the RISD Museum, offers a pretext for the museum to pull out almost all of its Impressionist holdings — not just paintings, but works on paper, too. It’s a lovely exhibit. And really — when you consider that it includes “Repose,” Manet’s great portrait of Berthe Morisot, “Antoinette’s Caress,” a beautiful pastel by Mary Cassatt, and great things by Van Gogh, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cezanne, as well as a stellar recent gift, Monet’s “A Walk in the Meadows at Argenteuil” — it could hardly fail to be lovely.
You can see paintings by all these artists at other local museums. The works on paper, usually confined to storage, are what make this show special. Most intriguing of all, at the center of a sequence of Degas images of the racetrack (which will be replaced by three of Degas’s ballet pastels during a second rotation), is his large-scale pastel, “Six Friends at Dieppe.”
If you expect unalloyed beauty from Impressionism, linger over the Monets, the Cassatts, the Renoirs. “Six Friends at Dieppe” is not beautiful. Nor is it unalloyed. Dense with complication, it intrigues on every level. Almost 4 feet high and more than 2 feet wide, it is the sort of work that inspires dissertations. (RISD honored it with a separate exhibition 10 years ago.)
The work, made in layers of powdery pastel over rough brown paper, shows a tableau of five men and a boy. Bizarrely, the boy and four of the men are all pushed over to the right side of the composition and rendered as overlapping shapes receding in space.
They appear physically close, but, oddly, they are not interacting. The same goes for the sixth figure, on the left, who turns his back and looks in the other direction.
The composition recalls the random arrangements and surprising juxtapositions of modern street photography. But street photography as we know it didn’t exist at this time (1885). Shutter speeds were too slow; cameras too cumbersome. (An actual photograph of the same people that was taken at almost the same time is instructive: Everyone is consciously posing. The composition is carefully centered. Spontaneity is nowhere in sight.)
Degas’s off-kilter pastel (inspired more by Japanese prints than photography) may at first look spontaneous and “modern,” like a fleeting moment snatched out of time. But it is too patently artificial for that. The figures occupy neither the same space nor the same moment in time. Instead, the impression is of separate portraits superimposed on one another, almost like a photo-collage.
Who were these “six friends”? Closest to us in the picture is Albert Cave, and immediately behind him is the painter Henri Gervex. The man standing on the left is the British artist Walter Sickert.
The six friends, along with Degas, were all vacationing in Dieppe, staying either at the summer residence of Jacques-Emile Blanche (the clean-shaven man standing at the back on the right), or the nearby cottage rented by Degas’s good friend, the author, playwright, and librettist Ludovic Halevy (the bearded man behind him).
Squeezed between Halevy and Blanche is Halevy’s son, Daniel, later a friend of Marcel Proust, and the author of a reminiscence, “My Friend Degas,” which tells us on the first page: “Two or three times a week Degas would leave his studio, ring our door bell and sit down at table with us.”
The Halevys were of Jewish descent, although Ludovic’s father had converted from Judaism to Christianity, and both Ludovic and his son Daniel were raised Protestant.
But for Degas, this was evidently not enough. During the Dreyfus Affair, which began 10 years after this friendly idyll in Dieppe, Degas’s anti-Semitism was inflamed to such a degree that his long and intimate friendship with the Halevys withered and died.
He came to dine with them for the last time in 1897. He remained, according to Daniel, “silent”: “His lips were closed; he looked upwards almost constantly, as though cutting himself off from the company that surrounded him.”
The Dreyfus Affair destroyed this important relationship in Degas’s life. But it brought him closer to fellow anti-Semites, including Jean-Louis Forain, a mediocre artist who painted, believed Degas, “with his hand in my pocket.” In 1898, Forain cofounded “Psst. . .,” a satirical magazine that published anti-Semitic caricatures and anti-Dreyfusard articles.
At the beginning of the Affair, which bitterly divided the French people, Forain had said to the painter Edouard Vuillard, “We are on the right side: The [expletives] are with us.”
That’s an interesting idea — an insight, if you like, into the timeless appeal of perversity — to keep in mind in the present political climate. (“Climate”? Try tinderbox.) It’s also worth registering that, despite his earlier pro-Dreyfusard stance, Daniel Halevy later identified with the extreme right, and supported the Vichy regime during World War II.
Back in 1871, Degas had painted a double portrait of a general (who was also a freemason) and a chief rabbi. The two subjects were friends. They had met in the French field ambulance service at the end of the recent Franco-Prussian War.
Degas’s rendering of the chief rabbi, Elie-Aristide Astruc, made Astruc’s son, Gabriel, furious. He later said that he thought Degas had “made a wreck of his splendid subject, replacing his tiny mouth with thick, sensual lips and changing his tender, loving regard into a look of greed. This painting,” he concluded, “is not a work of art — it is a pogrom.”
Now, where were we? “Six Friends at Dieppe” . . . Oh yes. The seaside. Impressionism. Good times.
At RISD Museum of Art, 20 North Main St., Providence, through June 11. 401-454-6400, www.risdmuseum.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.