February 15, 2012

Art: Paris and the Impressionists

Speed exhibit highlights artists inspired by the city in late 19th century

They say confession is good for the soul, so here goes: I have an Impressionist-style shower curtain.

That makes me one of the many people around the world who love the colorful, light-filled canvases of the Belle Époque era. Paris was the place to be; as art central, it drew all who wished to breath air thick with creativity.

The Speed Art Museum’s “Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color” focuses on the city at that time. The exhibition has plenty of big names from the art history books: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Marc Chagall.

It’s a joint endeavor of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis and the Speed. Approximately 30 Speed works, as well as a few from other Kentucky collections, supplement the Dixon’s 55 paintings. They did a swap — Louisville got the Dixon’s collection of French paintings, while the Dixon is the temporary home to the Speed’s Old Master collection.

Last year’s Speed show, “Impressionist Landscapes: Monet to Sargent,” covered some of the same territory. Although Impressionism is still the core, this exhibition has more — cityscapes, portraits, nightlife — plus artists who worked in other styles besides Impressionism. My guess is you will find art to interest you even if you don’t want to see Monet’s lily pads first thing in the morning.

“Impressionism is one of the most beloved periods in art history, and ‘Renoir to Chagall’ presents works from the most celebrated artists from this era,” says Ruth Cloudman, Speed’s chief curator. “This exhibition is not only visually stunning but provides a diverse display of subjects that engaged the Impressionists and their innovative followers that visitors are sure to adore.”

The show begins, as the title reveals, with Renoir. The portrait of his son in “The Picture Book” is loving and quiet. But Cassatt’s “The Child,” from the Speed’s collection, is the gallery’s attention-stealer. This painting of a fleshy baby is quintessential Cassatt, as is the portrait of her sister in “The Visitor.”

Think of Degas, and ballerinas should spring to mind. Balletomanes will not be disappointed, as an entire gallery is devoted to Parisian ballet. An iconic drawing by Degas, “Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe,” is the highlight of the room.

Additional works are by Toulouse-Lautrec and Jean-Louis Forain. While Toulouse-Lautrec would fulfill his destiny focusing on life at the non-upper-class Moulin Rouge, he’s represented here by a gentle rendition of a dancer at rest in “Dancer Seated on Pink Divan.” Note the pose: Many a prostitute and can-can dancer would be found in a similar position in the years to come. 

It wouldn’t be Impressionism without nature scenes. Renoir’s use of the palette knife helped conjure up the rough water crashing in on itself in “The Wave.” With optical mixing obscuring the details, we are just an artistic hop, skip and jump to the post-Impressionistic geometric abstraction of Cézanne’s “Trees and Rocks Near the Château Noir.”

Chagall’s paintings are usually composed of people and objects set in a dreamlike setting, and the works in this show are of that ilk. His “Dreamer,” painted after the death of his wife Bella, is full of the rich colors and symbolism particular to Chagall. The Speed’s later work, “Waiting (L’attente),” relates well to the Dixon piece.

Chagall moved to Paris in 1910. He once said, “I came because I sought the light of Paris, its freedom, its refinement and the skills of the craft. Paris lit up my shadowy world like the sun.”

We understand the allure.

‘Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color’
Through May 6
Speed Art Museum
2035 S. Third St. • 634-2700
$5 members, $15 non-members

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