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Too twee for me: The Sterling-Clark Impressionism collection at the RA

The problem, in my view, with Impressionism is not the fact that its most renowned images are regularly plastered across every kind of tourist paraphernalia and household object you can possibly imagine – often the most iconic images are icons for a reason – because they broke boundaries, they inspired, they recalled an essence of something past, a nostalgic ambience, a time of great creative fluidity.

Rather, the problem with Impressionism is that having begun as an artistic revolution, breaking new boundaries, taking art from the confines of bourgeois society, the closed-class snobbery of  institutionalised selection committees and the drawing rooms of the aristocracy and using it to celebrate the lives of the ordinary, of the downtrodden, of the true foundations of society, and steering draftsmanship from perfectly executed depictions to looser, more energetic and living impressions, much of Impressionism became the victim of its own success.

Renoir started painting ghastly portraits of rotund, rosy-cheeked women, twee, floral-sweet pictures which would fit nicely onto a chocolate box were they not so likely to induce the viewer to vomit. Monet, meanwhile, became overly obsessed with his damn lillies, to the extent that in trying to capture the subtle pinks and purples of mist over a pond, he ended up painting canvas after canvas which were reminiscent of the kind of floral fabric preferred by members of the WI and other polite conservative society. Van Gogh’s work became clumsier and clumpier, Cezanne’s became repetative, Degas started dabbling in pictures of nude women which were almost sadist, and Manet, poor thing, was confined to painting flowers, although to be fair, he was too ill to work on bigger canvases.

Pierre-August Renoir, Girl with a Fan (1879)

Pierre-August Renoir, A box at the Theatre (1880)

Anyway, the point I am making is that for the most part, having started off as revolutionaries, the Impressionists’ later work all too often conformed to a new form of the conservatism they were trying to escape in the first place – placating their former critics with twee works of flowers, pink-tinged landscapes, and pretty women, nude or in flowing dresses. And it is exactly these works which were the favourites of Sterling and Francine Clark and which, as a result, are the focus of the Royal Academy’s latest show in London, which showcases some major works from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (I believe because the Sterling-Clark is undergoing some form of renovation).

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Waiting (1888)

Those who have raved about this exhibition tend to have been on the older, more conservative side. And it is easy to see why they are seduced – some of these works may even feel a bit racy for a few of them – just look at Toulouse Lautrec’s Waiting, with a woman leaning despondently over her glass of absinthe. Quite the scandal compared with Renoir’s pleasant smiley female offerings hanging close by. But not to worry, that’s about as lascivious as this show gets. Sadly.

Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956) came from a wealthy New York Family whose fortune derived from the Singer sewing machine company. He began collecting art after he settled in Paris in 1910 and where he soon became the chum of famous art dealers Knoedler and Durand-Ruel who introduced him to the innovative work of the Impressionists which had finally broken into the mainstream at that time. In fact Renoir, whose works Clark adored (he eventually collected some 39, 21 of which are at the RA) was by that time so popular that looking around at the sales receipts interestingly exhibited by the RA, you can see that Clark was paying astounding sums such as 100,000 dollars for Renoirs, even then. As the collection, added to with the help of his French wife, Francine, grew, Clark had it in mind to open a museum. He did this in 1955, in Massachusetts, providing a permanent home for his many Impressionists works including Monets, Manets, Toulouse Lautrecs as well as various more classical pieces. Disappointingly, his collection is very experimental – he had one Gauguin on show, and even that was a traditional(ish) portrait of a woman.

Claude Monet, The Cliffs at Etretat (1885)

Edouard Manet, Interior at Arcachon (1871)

Claude Monet, Seascape: Storm (1860-67)

In fact Clark obviously had a penchant for paintings of women. After the initial gallery of flowers, onions and various fairly dull landscapes by Pissarro and Monet, the main bulk of the small exhibition are portraits of women. Asides from the insipid offerings of Renoir, there are, mercifully, some far more enticing works by other artists, both big-wig impressionists and less well-known painters. Two incredibly evocative Toulouse-Lautrec works are on show, both offering quite stark views of a woman in the shady quarters of Montmartre, one, Carmen, who confronts the viewer straight on, while the other, nameless, is just waiting – what for, we don’t know. From the hunched over pose and the glass of absinthe before her, are we to assume she is waiting for luck to come her way, or even death to end her suffering?

Of the other portraits of women, my favourite had to be Crossing the Street by Giovanni Boldini. Boldini, an Italian artist who settled in Paris, loved painting the sights and sounds of the salacious neighbourhood of Pigalle on his doorstep, and this beautiful portrait of a woman, raisng the hem of her petticoat as she crosses the cobbled street, is so wonderfully evocative, and brilliantly painted, exhibiting both an impressionistic, roughly painted background, and a precise and focused detailed and sympathetically painted portrait. I also adore the little details – the shop sign, the dog, the Dandy in the carriage – it’s a wonderful turn back in time to a Paris of bohemian romance and delightful decadence mixed with poverty and decay.

Giovanni Boldini, Crossing the Street (1873-75)

James Tissot, Chrysanthemums (1874-76)

Likewise mention has to go to the lesser known artists who nevertheless created two portraits really worth visiting this show to see – James Tissot’s Chrysanthemums, a brilliant depiction of a woman, looking at the audience as though disturbed, surrounded by a great swathe of multicoloured hairy-headed flowers painted with great fantastic technical skill. Also check out Alfred Steven’s Memories and Regrets, in which a woman, as the name suggests, appears to have been sent into a daydream of remembering prompted by the letter in her hand, a personal and private moment interrupted only by the presence of we, the viewer, introduced to the scene thanks to the technical rendering of Steven’s portrayal.

Alfred Stevens, Memories and Regrets (1874)

Like any show, this one has its highlights, and whether it be that the paintings of the lesser known artists exhibit the most skill in their execution, or just because, since they are not tourist fodder like their more well known impressionist colleagues, they represent something of a breath of fresh air, those paintings by the likes of Boldini, Tissot and Steven are definitely, for me, the stars of the show.

As for the other impressionist works on show – well these paintings are all very safe, and for that reason I find them boring. But for lovers of the chocolate box impressionism which is so firmly engrained onto the consciousness of every tourist and gallery visitor around the world, this show gives you impressionist staple which you will undoubtedly enjoy. But don’t forget your Renoir souvenirs on the way out.

Pierre-August Renoir, Onions (1881)

From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism continues in the RA’s Sackler Wing Galleries until 23 September 2012.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very well-written article. Thank you.

    September 7, 2012
  2. petit4chocolatier #

    I love all the art; especially A box at the Theatre! Beautiful!!

    September 7, 2012
  3. But is not all art, however supposedly “revolutionary” it may appear to be at first, eventually doomed to become “the victim of its own success” (assuming it DOES succeed, that is)? Look at the so-called “art” of Andy Warhol…
    Does “art” really have to “celebrate the lives of the ordinary, of the downtrodden, of the true foundations of society” in order to be considered revolutionary or pioneering? Is it not enough that the technique used is innovative? And WERE the Impressionists the first to paint the ordinary and the downtrodden? Was that really so revolutionary?
    Finally – if an artist paints something that people actually like, rather than something that they “should” see (to paraphrase Sir Humphrey), is his/her art any less valid?

    September 8, 2012

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