Thursday, July 9, 2015

Impressionists in Utica

At the time it was emerging, Impressionism was laughed at by the art critics of the late 19th century. It was no compliment to call a painter an "impressionist." In fact, in 1874, labeling an artist as such meant the painter had no skill and lacked the common sense to finish a painting before selling it. Well, considering the enduring legacies of Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Marisot, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, it appears the artists got the last laugh.

A tidy exhibit currently at Utica's Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute offers an overview of the Impressionist movement with 60 artworks, mostly paintings. Titled Monet to Matisse: The Age of French Impressionism, the display brings the observer closer to the at-the-time revolutionary style--at its zenith from 1874 to 1929--while teasing you as well. Despite its name, there are but one Matisse and two Monets. And don't expect any expansive paintings of Monet's gardens at Giverny or still lifes or nudes from Matisse; the only large work here, at nearly 7 feet tall by 9.4 feet wide, is The Joyous Festival, an oil on canvas by French painter Gaston La Touche. And the Monets are downright gloomy. Still, Monet to Matisse is not to be missed.

"Peasant Girl Among Tulips," 1890, oil on canvas by Berthe Merisot.
Rooted in rebellion, Impressionism formally launched in 1874, when Monet, Edgar Degas, Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Sisley and Morisot joined 23 other artists in a group show outside the recognized art exhibits called the Salon de Paris. The Impressionists exhibited together eight times between 1874 and 1886, each time likely ticking off the Salon, who could do nothing to stop them.

As a rule, Impressionists discovered art-worthy subjects in everyday, middle class people; they found poetry in everyday life. The interplay of light marks the common denominator in what defines Impressionism, and the landscapes featured in Monet to Matisse display that to great effect--incredible skies of blues, grays and whites are blanketed by cloud formations, for instance. To appreciate the entire canvas, start at the top of these paintings before moving down to then look at the entire scene.

The exhibit occupies five galleries on the second floor, and children's activities can be fun and educational for adults as well. Posters in an adjacent hallway explain who the artists were and why their work was important. Two iPad-like tablets contain greater details of the life and work of Camille Pissarro and, in a separate room, Marc Chagall. Both artists' work is displayed here as well, with Chagall's famous painted goat especially delightful.

"The Joyous Festival," ca. 1906, oil on canvas by Gaston La Touche.
You'll get a slight glimpse at the genius of Degas, through his "Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe" charcoal and pastel on paper, as well as that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with "Dancer Seated on a Pink Divan," an oil on canvas.

Adjacent to some paintings, a separate information sheet explains the clothing styles represented on the canvas, many showing ordinary people. Some subjects were more famous, as in "Portrait of Eugenia Huici Arguedas de Errázuriz," 1890, a pastel on canvas by Jacques-Emile Blanche overlooking a smaller gallery. The subject of this large, vertical painting was a Paris fashion icon in her day, and the dress she wears here shows why. It's a shimmering silver-blue tea gown standing out from the grays and greens of the background.

This exhibit shows why the Impressionists were so important to the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries, both in culture and in art, and may leave you wondering why they were ever ridiculed in the first place.

Monet to Matisse continues through Nov. 29. Admission is $10; $5 for students; free for children under 12. You'll find Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute at 310 Genesee St., Utica. For more information, call (315) 797-0000 or visit