Currently, in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia, there is a truly wonderful and enlightening exhibition – Colours of Impressionism – that has some excellent works from Musee D’Orsay in Paris. What follows is a brief overview of the exhibition.
The first colour that is focused on is black. Following traditional methods, black was used for shadows, to highlight landscapes and portraits. Black hues were used by the romantic artists to darken their predominantly historical paintings. Significantly, ‘black’ was also the dominant colour of men’s clothes in the mid-nineteenth century, hence its relatively constant presence in realistic portraiture of the time, and was regarded as very ‘modern’.
Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne (1869) – Edouard Manet
It was Edouard Manet (1832-1883) who exemplifies the beginning of a new approach by the ‘impressionists’ in the use of the colour black. To quote from the exhibition pamphlet – ‘Manet applied thick black paint to create stark shapes with greatly simplified contrasts. Black played a key part in the balance of his compositions, a departure from its standard use in creating shadows and darkening other tones’.
There are other works in this first section of the exhibition. Two works that captured my attention that also exemplify this new use of the colour ‘black’ are by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and James Tissot (1836-1902).
Le Bain (1873-74) – Alfred Stevens
What is remarkable about Alfred Stevens’ Le Bain (The Bath) is the juxtapositions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ objects. The actual bath, which was traditionally done in ‘white’, is in various dark shades and hues. In contrast, the eye is drawn to the ‘white’ objects, such as pale flesh of the female bather, the book and linen next to the bath, the flowers, and the soap dish on the wall. Intriguingly, there seems to be a black ‘fob watch’ in the soap dish, which suggests that there is a time limit for this bath.
I am big fan of James Tissot’s work. He is primarily known for his painting of ‘high society’ that are generally quite crisp and vibrant in detail. Subsequently, it was great to see La reveuse (The Dreamer), which is a rather dark intimate painting of a woman reclining in a chair. According to the accompanying descriptor, Tissot was also inspired by Japanese art at the time in regards to linear portraiture.
La reveuse (1876) – James Tissot
The second section of the exhibition deals with the colour white. This is exemplified by respective paintings of snow by Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). There are others, including a most unusual Paul Gauguin, nonetheless, it was the following that captured my attention and imagination.
La neige / Snow (1873) – Charles-Francois Daubigny
Following new contemporary theories in regard to colour, shades of blue were used for shadows and highlights. Furthermore, inspiration came from Japanese artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Monet, in particular, was inspired by these Japanese artists, and kept a large personal collection of Japanese art.
Vue de toits (effet de neige) / Rooftops in the snow (snow effect) – Gustave Caillebotte
La neige a Louvreciennes / Snow at Louvreciennes (1878) – Alfred Sisley
There are a number of Alfred Sisley’s ‘snow’ paintings but this one stood out for me, partly because of my own fascination with ‘pathways’ and ‘perspective’.
However, the most impressive painting for me is this section was Claude Monet’s magnificent La pie (The magpie). This relatively large painting not only exemplifies the use of white and blue, but also the vulnerability of life in winter, represented by the sole magpie perched on the rickety gate.
La pie / The magpie (1868-69) – Claude Monet
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the matter of la peinture claire (‘painting light’). This involved the impressionists use of luminous colours, ‘subtle contrasts of tone and rapid broken brushstrokes to capture the ephemeral effects of light’. This complemented another developing characteristic of ‘Impressionism’ known as en plein air, which essentially meant painting in the open air.
La peinture claire and en plein air were partly due to a reaction against the conventional and academic approach to historical painting favoured by the official ‘Salon’ of contemporary Paris. The ‘Impressionists’ were also called the ‘Independents’ because of their reactionary position. The term ‘impressionism’ came from the art critic, Louis Leroy, who used this word to describe the work of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renior and Alfred Sisley, who were the artists represented in the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris in 1874.
There are numerous examples of la peinture claire and en plein air in this exhibition, particularly by Pissarro. However, it was the ones by Alfred Sisley that mainly attracted my attention. This included La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly (Boat in the flood at Port-Marly). Sisley lived in Port-Marly from 1874-1880. In 1876 the region was subject to severe floods and Sisley did a series of paintings, of which this is one.
La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly / Boat in the flood at Port-Marly (1876) – Alfred Sisley
What is remarkable about this painting is not only it perfectly exemplifying la peinture claire but also adds a dramatic element to un plein air. Even here there is the unexpected subversion of conventional ‘historical’ painting, based on real events. The two figures, as well as the whole canvas, seem rather calm and tranquil in contrast to the natural disaster of the flood.
There is also another – a ‘triptych’ that has paintings by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, all depicting different aspects of a ‘lie-de-France’ – Sisley’s Saint-Denis Island (1872), Pissarro’s Entrance to the village of Voisons (1872), and Monet’s Pleasure Boats (1872-73).
These three paintings were donated to the Musee de Louvre in 1923 by Ernest May and remain exactly as they were when they belonged to him. As the catalogue states, ‘Each in a similar gilded frame, they maintain their long-standing dialogue’. Whilst Pissarro’s painting centres the triptych it remains within his general preoccupation with earthy rural settings. Sisley’s and Monet’s offer a chance to discern their respective differences in depicting reflections in water. As the catalogue states, ‘in Monet’s treatment of water, the areas of flat colour impart a vigour absent in Sisley, who preferred small, juxtaposed touches to express the shimmering river.’
The fourth section of the exhibition is about the Impressionists use of green and blue. Monet’s advice to a young American painter, Lily Cabot Perry, encapsulates the use of these colours and more: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you…Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint them just as you see them…until your own artless impression of the scene appears before you’.
Most of the paintings in this section are un plein air. There is one Monet, however, that is of an interior – Un coin d’appartment (A corner of the apartment), which contains a young boy in blue who is framed in different shades of green shubbery. It is a rather unsettling painting as the young boy seems like a ghostly presence in this corner of the apartment.
Un coin d’appartment / A corner of the apartment (1875) – Claude Monet
Another extraordinary Monet painting is Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony). This comes from a much later period in Monet’s life, around 1900, and is one of two studies; the other being Water lily pond, green harmony. As stated in the catalogue, these paintings ‘anticipate the long sequence of pictures that Monet painted of the pond that was built in Giverny in 1893’. Nonetheless, the ‘pink harmony’ painting also exemplifies the respective use of la peinture clair, the use of green, blue and pink, and the influence of en plein air.
Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie / Water lily pond, pink harmony (1900) – Claude Monet
The fifth section of the exhibition is devoted to the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. This is exemplified by works by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944). These artists featured in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
The critic Felix Feneon identified Neo-Impressionism as ‘a modern synthesis of methods based on science’. Rather than mixing on the palette, the Neo-Impressionists divided primary colours based on the principles of contrasting colours advocated by Michel-Eugene Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as Ogden Nicholas Rood’s influential 1879 ‘colour circle’. As the exhibition’s pamphlet states, the Neo-Impressionists ‘methodically juxtaposed small brushstrokes of complementary unmixed hues, these responding to and invigorating each other’. This was called Divisionism, that included the sub-genre of Pointillism, ‘which refers to the technique of applying tiny dots of paint rather than adopting the principle of colour division to create more vivid and accurate tones’.
One of the most famous examples of Pointillism is Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86). This exhibition contains a couple of ‘studies’ that Seurat made in preparation for the final painting.
Whilst there are a number of other Neo-Impressionist work in this section, there are three by Paul Signac that I found particularly impressive – Les andelys (The Riverbank), La bouee rogue (The Red Buoy) and Les chateau des papes (Palace of the Popes); and L’entree du port de Roscoff (Entrance to the port of Roscoff) by the lesser known Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).
Les andelys / The riverbank (1886) – Paul Signac
La bouee rouge / The red buoy (1895) – Paul Signac
Le chateau des papes / Palace of the Popes (1909) – Paul Signac
L’entree du port de Roscoff / Entrance to the port of Roscoff (1889) – Theo van Rysselberghe
The final section of the exhibition involves how the colours of the Impressionists softened in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This exemplified by works from Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Auguste Renior (1841-1919).
Sur un banc au bois de Boulogne / On a bench in the bois de Boulogne (1894) – Berthe Morisot; Gabrielle a la rose / Gabrielle with a rose (1911) – Auguste Renoir
As stated in the exhibition’s pamphlet, ‘The works us “fluid harmonies” of gentle tones, rather than complementary colours, to create subtle effects such as the morning mists, the pink of dusk and the play of light at different times of day. Painting the fleeting light was now, however, less about recording direct observation than the expression of a mood evoking a sense of memory or melancholy’.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).
La cathedrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil / Rouen Cathedral. The portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight (1893) – Claude Monet
The exhibition concludes with a painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), representative of and anticipating ‘Cubism’ in the early twentieth century.
Rochers pres des grottes au-dessus du Chateau Noir / Rocks near the caves above Chateau Noir (c.1904) – Paul Cezanne
The Art Gallery of South Australia contains some truly exceptional artworks. This includes some 19th Century paintings that exemplify the kind of ‘historical’ works favoured by the conservative academics at the Paris ‘Salon’ that the ‘Impressionists’ reacted against. This includes popular works such as The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-58) by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) and Zenobia’s last look at Palmyra (1888) by Herbert G. Schmaltz (1856-1935).
The Impressionist exhibition has a couple of paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), citing his ‘experimental use of colour’ influence on the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. Australian ‘Impressionism’, which was like its European counterpart also primarily characterized landscape painting – un plein air – can trace its own unique influence with the early colonial artists, such as John Glover (1767-1849).
Baptism on the Ouse River by Rev. Henry Dowling (1838) – John Glover
One of the most impressive Australian paintings and one of the most popular in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection is Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) by H. J. Johnstone (1835-1907). This perhaps couldn’t be regarded as a work of Australian ‘Impressionism’, more like a precursor to twentieth-century ‘photo-realism’ (Jonstone was a professional photographer), nonetheless, its use of colour is very much sympatico with ‘Impressionism’, as well as coming from the same time.
Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) – H. J. Johnstone
The first major Australian ‘Impressionist’-like artist is perhaps Tom Roberts (1856-1931). Roberts, like his European Impressionist counterparts also firmly followed un plein air, as exemplified by his Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885).
Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885) – Tom Roberts
Other major Australian ‘Impressionists’ are Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), exemplified by his Cario Street Scene (c.1897), and Charles Conder (1868-1909) and his A Holiday at Mentone (1888), both in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.
There are many others. Complementing the final section of the Musee D’Orsay’s exhibition – ‘Ideal Harmonies’ – and the more ‘fluid’ and softer use of colour and light in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is From the apartment window, Paris (1901) by Hans Heysen (1877-1968), Le Bar, Saint Jacques, Paris (1904) by American artist Ambrose Peterson, La Coiffure (1908) by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947), After the Bath (c. 1911) by E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), and The Pheasant (c.1919) by English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942).
Finally, to finish with one of my personal favourites is German-Australian Hans Heysen, who studio and home were in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, which can be visited today. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a number of large paintings by Hans Heysen – one of which is Mystic Morn (1904), which is a superb example of ‘Australian Impressionism’, as well as a painting that exemplifies ‘ideal harmonies’.
Mystic Morn (1904) – Hans Heysen