Consider the irony: When the first French impressionists began exhibiting their work in the late 19th Century, the occasion marked a fairly radical break with the academic art of the time. Even the designation impressionism, coined by critic Louis Leroy and popularized by the French press, had a slightly derogatory tinge to it, as if the style were a faddish affectation, a petulant thumbing of the nose at the art establishment.
Flash-forward a little more than a century and impressionism has become oh-so-respectable, even safe. Paintings sell for astronomical sums, and even the most modest exhibitions draw admiring crowds, relieved at not having to make sense of the more demanding and difficult varieties of contemporary art.
"French Impressionism and Boston: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts," which ends its run at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach on March 5, is hardly modest (nor are the crowds on a recent Sunday it was challenging to navigate the galleries). It includes more than 50 paintings, and all the big French names are here: Degas, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir. Also included are a pair of paintings by the great, underappreciated Alfred Sisley, who was born in Paris to expatriate British parents.
"French Impressionism and Boston: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts" and "Matisse in Transition: Around Laurette"
On display through March 5 ("Impressionism") and April 19 ("Matisse") at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.
The dozen Monet canvases, of course, are the exhibition's stars, even if a few of them seem to have been included just to satisfy a checklist of the artist's many subjects. Haystacks? One of the 25 he painted, Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny (1885), is here. Poplars? One of the 24, Meadow with Poplars (c. 1875), present. Portraits? Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist's Garden in Argenteuil (1875), check. And what would a selection of Monets be without one of the famous water-lily paintings? The 1905 version we get, unfortunately, only hints at the shimmering grandeur of later installments in the series; still, it's a Monet Water Lilies.
The best of the Monets and among the best pieces in the entire show are three landscapes in a grouping near the end of the exhibition labeled "Monet and the Mediterranean," all executed in 1888 on a trip to the French Riviera. The most breathtaking is The Fort of Antibes, for which Monet had to request special permission to paint because of a law banning the portrayal of military sites. The title structure perches grandly on a rocky landscape jutting into the sea, with a range of snow-capped mountains as the backdrop. It's a deceptively simple composition that packs quite a punch.
Those velvety mountains also figure prominently in the other two works: Antibes Seen from the Plateau Notre-Dame, which pre -sents the city from a greater distance, offset by a tree in the foreground; and Cap d'Antibes, Mistral, in which a wispy suggestion of a sailboat is dwarfed by foliage in front, mountains behind. Two other Monets in an entirely different vein are almost as impressive: the chiaroscuro wintry landscapes of Snow at Argenteuil (c. 1874) and Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter (1875). Complementing these two is a delicate, pastel-toned winter image of bare trees and a solitary figure, Camille Pissarro's Morning Sunlight on the Snow, Eragny-sur-Epte (1895).
Despite such highlights, the exhibition feels the slightest bit padded with paintings by a handful of other French artists, some famous, some not as well known. These are unexceptional works, for the most part, although Antoine Chintreuil's Last Rays of Sun on a Field of Sainfoin (c. 1870) beautifully captures the fleeting play of light, which is, after all, what impressionism is mostly about.
Beyond that, we have to make allowances. The inclusion of, say, Eugène Boudin can be rationalized because he participated in the first impressionist show, in 1874, and adopted some impressionist techniques in his later work. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot can be more problematic, depending on whether you see him as the last of the neoclassicists or as the first impressionist. The latter view was subscribed to by both Degas ("He is still the strongest; he anticipated everything.") and Monet ("There is only one master here Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing."). The show hedges its bets by including a classic Corot landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau (1846), and the more impressionistic Bathers in a Clearing, from roughly a quarter of a century later.
The presence of a couple of works by Jean-François Millet is bewildering, although one of the paintings Three Men Shearing Sheep in a Barn provides a good excuse to pair it with William Morris Hunt's uncanny re-creation of it, Sheep Shearing at Barbizon, both from around 1852. The Millet is actually an abandoned preliminary study for another much more polished painting, but it's easy to see why Hunt was drawn to the way the murky interior of the barn is flooded with sunlight.
Then again, Hunt is one of the American artists whose work makes up nearly half of this exhibition devoted to, according to the title, French impressionism. (The catalog further muddies the waters with its title: Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting.) Never mind that two of the show's strongest paintings are by American Philip Leslie Hale, whose Landscape (c. 1890) is a near-abstract image of trees and whose French Farmhouse (c. 1893) is a fascinating take on pointillism.
The exhibition ultimately does all its artists a bit of an injustice by diffusing its focus so much. Since most of the Americans indeed studied in France, often with Monet himself, wouldn't a tighter focus on Monet and his immediate circle have made more sense? But that would be another show, not the one now on view.
Impressionism may have mildly scandalized audiences and critics when it first appeared, but the work of Henri Matisse provoked outrage and disgust not so many years later. A 1905 exhibition, for instance, prompted another art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to slap Matisse and some of his contemporaries with the label "fauves," for "wild beasts."
Now, of course, we luxuriate in Matisse's color-saturated, pattern-riddled interiors, although some of the artist's output portraits, notably remains almost as intimidating as it was then. That doesn't appear to have deterred the crowds visiting another current Norton exhibition, "Matisse in Transition: Around Laurette."
The show is small only about two dozen pieces, plus some supplementary photographs and it's as sharply focused as the impressionist exhibition is fuzzy. Most of the works are in oil, a few in ink, charcoal, and graphite, and all but a handful are of a frequent Matisse model from the early 1900s.
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Little is known of this mysterious Italian woman, including her surname, and even her first name varies from image to image. And while Matisse was often photographed with his models, there are no known photos of the artist with Laurette (or, as she's sometimes referred to, Lorette).
One easy conclusion to be drawn from the Laurette pictures, however, is that it's doubtful Matisse was attracted to her for her great beauty. More likely, he was fascinated by her strong, fierce features, which lend themselves quite well to his explorations of portraiture at the time. Only one small oil-on-wood work from 1917 softens the model's usual harshness to any significant degree.
Oddly, two of the most powerful portraits are 1916 renderings not of Laurette but of Michael Stein (brother of Leo and writer Gertrude, both avid patrons of Matisse and Picasso, among others) and his wife, Sarah. Even more than the Laurette portraits, these strange paintings live up to the "in transition" part of the exhibition's title.
But just as Laurette captivated Matisse, we may find it difficult to resist his myriad interpretations of her peculiar charms. These paintings and drawings are a reminder of how revolutionary Matisse remains after nearly a century.