A Lost Moment

John Haber
in New York City

The Origins of Impressionism

Thomas Eakins at the Met

Impressionism has suffered more attention than anything in art before Andy Warhol's social life. So when the Met promises the "The Origins of Impressionism," one has only a right to expect newly revealing perspectives and, of course, knockout art. This show has both, but too intermittently. I felt happier in an exhibition of Thomas Eakins halfway across the museum. Edouard Manet's Fifer (Musée d'Orsay, 1866)

A style known as Impressionism

The knockouts can hardly be missed. The Met is joining with the D'Orsay in Paris, so it can deliver paintings like Manet's Portrait of Zola. Zola's angular, seated profile plays off the Japanese prints that he and Manet so admired, while its dark execution adds a slapdash precision otherwise unknown until Matisse. Elsewhere Daubigny's dense, dark trees almost hold their own next to the unsettling, creamy blues of Monet's high horizons. Ample galleries give plenty of space around more than 175 works, even with the crowds in search of better Renoir reproductions for the living-room sofa.

The exhibition's thesis may be harder to pinpoint, but the curator's heavy-handed style is instantly recognizable. As in his recent survey of American Impressionism, paintings hang on dark, dreary walls, not the pristine whites of Soho. They also hover just a little too far above eye level, leaving me with a sore neck well before I reached the end.

In both shows, the Met traces modern art to the competition with academic realism. "Origins" opens with a capsule of one year's official Salon, in which a jury selected from countless submissions. Rooms then take up a single genre, be it portraiture or still life. They juxtapose very different tastes and skills indeed, the breakthrough artists alongside the not so courageous.

Many visitors have mistaken the Met's intentions. As the endlessly intrusive wall labels make clear, it is not out to put retrograde painters back on the map. It wants Impressionism once again to look as startling as over a century ago. The show therefore tries to restore Impressionism to its historical context, and it sticks to a single decade, when a brave new style began to emerge.

What's wrong with this picture? Why does Pierre-Auguste Renoir look pretty enough for me and the crowds—and yet anything but startling? In practice, the show diffuses the impact of a great generation more effectively than the gift shop on the way out.

Origins but not chronology

Basically, an arrangement by genre confuses the issue. It throws together the great, the near great, and the downright silly, while the huge walls and arches preclude a central focus. Manet's Fifer is muted rather than enhanced by the stiff figures to either side. My favorite of Monet's early landscapes was half hidden between a partition and a door.

The genres never sound more than artificial, as indeed they were. At least three of them amount to different ways of saying "landscape." They also defy chronology, forcing the visitor back a crucial five years out of a mere ten, just to catch up to the state of the art in flower paintings. Worst of all, the decade of supposed origins comes to an abrupt end. Just when Monet's long struggle with the whole notion of his art might have become more meaningful, it is time to leave. Without the context of genuine Impressionism, early efforts have much less impact. Ironically, Degas himself had a longer view.

The visible losses really stem from bad ideas. I believe that the show's whole premise misstates the aims of Impressionism. Increasingly, especially after Manet, younger painters were unwilling, indeed unable to define themselves by the standards of the Salon. As scholars have started to show, the Impressionists were social realists after all, but hardly within the cubbyholes of old genres. They documented the newly attained leisure of the middle class.

Even their relationship to landscape painting is distorted. They were not just spending more time out of doors, a fairly accepted practice. They were changing the way in which color conveys light and space. From now on, painting would have to reflect on exactly what it means to present reality through brushstrokes. Here much of the Pre-Impressionist art therefore muddles things more than it helps. A similar muddle takes place when a museum confuses de Kooning with his roots.

Masters of bad taste

The context does work amazingly well for Manet. He is better represented, as some have noted, because he matured within the show's decade, and he really did have quite a violent love-hate relationship with tradition. His figures try to outdo their teachers, but always with a nasty edge.

The sorest provocations, such as A Bar at the Folies Bergère, could not travel to New York, but what made it here more than holds its own. A pitch-black perspective shadow jabs at the viewer beneath that fifer's bright, playing-card flatness, and that is only the start. I almost wish the Met had included all the newspaper caricatures Manet earned. As G. H. Hamilton showed years ago, in a book called Manet and His Critics, the public got the joke all too well—and resented it bitterly.

Even more than in Manet's recent retrospective, one can see why he meant so much to younger artists. Mostly, however, the diffusion of artists and styles succeeds best in conveying not the origins of Impressionism, but the development of many different Impressionists. I shall certainly never see Renoir's dense patchwork of color, which accounts for the feathery sensation of his surfaces, as indistinguishable from the touch of his fellow rebels and painters.

One also gets a special chance to distinguish the early Paul Cézanne, who made no effort to hide his neuroses. His small, thickly painted works turn narratives from Veronese into bad dreams. The same passion was to simmer beneath the more sober intensity of his late, great canvases.

Maybe the Met should have reveled in just that kind of zaniness. It could have aimed for a truer historical reconstruction, rather than a Salon neatly redesigned for modern tastes. The real thing, with paintings stacked floor to ceiling, wore its politics on its sleeve. It must have been even wilder than those Warhol parties.

Instead, Monet and Renoir seem anything but climactic. In the final room, they can at last work side by side—on famous renditions of a dock called La Grenouillère. It is one of the great moments in art history, and one ought to see them nurturing and challenging each other. They were pushing each other to terser handling, sharper background colors, and all the new vision these devices entailed. This was not mere Impressionism as the latest thing.

As Georges Braque said of himself and Picasso in another epochal confrontation, they were like mountain climbers yoked together. Here, they seem here like two more artists with two more approaches to landscape. A must-see exhibition has reduced a critical generation to matters of personal taste and style.

Eakins without his courage

I cannot get enough of the late nineteenth century, especially after such an abrupt exit from a decade of upheaval. I had to finish my visit in the Met's American wing. There it gathered its entire holdings of Thomas Eakins. As a full retrospective would show, he still stands as the leading Philadelphia painter of the age and America's finest realist.

With a collection this fine, the Met deserves to pat itself on the back. Unfortunately, its smugness here does a disservice to the artist. One gets to read repeatedly how happy Eakins was to enter the museum's collection.

These exercises in self-congratulation are also sexist. I learned the likely occupation of every male sitter, but the wall labels were less forthcoming about women. One would never know that the painter's wife and heir was an artist.

The Met also misstates Eakins's sin in the eyes of the establishment. He violated propriety not just by frontal nudity, but by undraping male models in front of women. As in the ideals of so many early feminists, he had the courage to accept and encourage his students for their talent.

Still, the timing alongside "Origins of Impressionism" is perfect. Like Manet, Eakins admired Velázquez and Dutch artists, leading to introspective interiors and the great standing figure known as The Thinker. Like Manet too, to get the tradition just right he had to provoke it, using that nudity to upset his classical allusions. America's own Impressionism, even in the hands of Childe Hassam, was never so forthright.

Eakins also kept trying to fit portraits into the shallower space of modern landscape painting. So did Monet, whose outdoor painting of his wife and friends now survives only in sketches and fragments. And both Eakins and the Impressionists saw the challenge that the new art of photography presented to representation. Over twenty shimmering prints exhibit Eakins's dedication to the new medium. They make a good, short antidote to the bustle at the far other end of the museum.

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"The Origins of Impressionism" ran through January 8, 1996, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Thomas Eakins at the Metropolitan" ran through February 26.


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