An anonymous figure stands alone on a beach, dwarfed by the immense landscape spread out in front of him. The sky is a hazy, dreamy blue. Pellucid water streaks across the expanse of rich golden sand, as mist sweeps over the scene.
“The Lens of Impressionism”
Oct. 10 to Jan. 3
This is the setting for James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Sea and Rain, the painting that sparked the idea for the exhibit “The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850–1874.” As a signature piece of the museum’s collection, the Whistler served as the starting point for the exhibition and its many avenues of inquiry. A seascape painted in a chic French coastal town, Sea and Rain will be surrounded by paintings and photographs with similar motifs, all the works depicting the coast of Normandy in the second half of the 19th century.
The exhibit, however, contains more than just various depictions of the stylish, romantic coast of France, and it’s not just an assortment of pictures of far-off sailboats or waves crashing on cliffs. This exhibition’s narrow chronological focus marks a specific time and place where exciting things were happening in the art world.
Between 1850 and 1874, Normandy was a hotbed of artistic activity. Sweeping changes in the world — technological, commercial and artistic — merged together to create a new kind of art. Photography and painting participated in a dialogue that became the artist’s response to a brave new modern world. With three inventions, the art world in the region developed into something irrevocably different.
“Our notion of speed — of how things moved — was suddenly and abruptly changed,” said Carole McNamara, the curator of the exhibition. “This trio of inventions — the railroad, the camera and the telegraph — collapsed time in a way that had been completely unthinkable before these inventions, and it was as completely overturning to earlier assumptions as the Internet has been for our time. It was their huge thing to adapt to.”
With the rise of the rail line, the tourism industry accelerated in places like the coast of Normandy. Resort towns became stomping grounds not only for the fashionable bourgeoisie, but for great photographers and painters who came to capture the way light danced on the water. Photographers explored the new medium, making innovations that inspired many aspects of early Impressionism.
“The consideration of photography was influencing both how painters were seeing and how they were depicting what they were seeing,” McNamara said.
Techniques like unique forms of cropping or framing often popped up in early Impressionist paintings, adding to the serendipitous feel that’s infused in this type of art. Painting adapted to confront this new, faster-moving world.
“It involves this instantaneity, which in photography meant arresting motion so you don’t get blurs,” McNamara said. “Transferred to painting, it means capturing something that might seem incidental. It feels accidental. But it isn’t.”
Many pieces in the exhibit are on loan from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and Bibliothèque nationale de France. The likes of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet will be represented, along with photographers Gustave Le Gray and Henri Le Secq. These familiar names will be accompanied by some lesser-known artists to present a thorough survey of the art movement in this period and locale.
“A wonderful thing about the Bibliothèque nationale’s loans is that (they) will introduce to American audiences photographers who we have no idea about, artists who are completely unknown over here,” McNamara said.
Ephemera from the time period, like souvenirs from the 1868 World’s Fair, will be displayed as well to give spectators a sense of what life was like back then. Scattered throughout the exhibit will be several comparisons, including paintings and photographs side by side to show the intertwining motifs and styles, as well as academic paintings that set the standard of the day placed next to the Impressionist works to show just how shocking this new type of art could be and must have been at the time.
“It’s easy to forget how outrageous Impressionist painting was, because it’s become so comfortable and familiar to us,” McNamara said.
But next to the glossy finish of Salon paintings, it’s clear why the seemingly tame images of fishing villages and squally skies caused such a stir. The works in the exhibition exemplify the free and loose style that first earned the moniker “Impressionism,” which was originally tagged onto Monet’s Impression Sunrise with more than a hint of derision. This format recalls the upset accompanying this then-new art form — one that is commonplace and extremely marketable today.
Throughout October and November, there will also be a wide array of programs to accompany the exhibition for those on the lookout for more. Three lectures, including one by McNamara, go along with the themes and issues raised by the collection. Two musical programs are planned as well, featuring music evoking similar qualities to Impressionism and music from contemporaries of the Impressionists. Lastly, those inspired by Courbet’s La Vague can even create their own seascape painting in a workshop called “Seascapes: Exploring the Horizon.” “Lens of Impressionism” runs until Jan. 3.