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Art

We'll always have Paris

The City of Light left its mark on American artists after the Civil War. But don't think Impressionism was all they were up to.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published April 1, 2007


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NAPLES, Fla.

At first, there might have been something defeatist, even cynical, about so many Americans' rush to Paris beginning in the 1860s. The Civil War traumatized the nation, calling the young republic's ideals into question. More than that, though, Europe still exerted a strong cultural pull that the War for Independence did not extinguish. If you wanted to be a serious artist, Paris was the only place to go.

"Impressions: Americans in France, 1860-1930" at the Naples Museum of Art is a survey of influences absorbed by young American artists who studied there, some briefly, some remaining a lifetime. The title is misleading because it implies that this show is about impressionism. It includes those who embraced that renegade current as well as those who hewed to the academic tradition so prevalent in the latter 19th century. And a few artists who went their own way.

To its credit, the exhibition includes stellar examples of aesthetic assimilation along with those that could be called, at best, second-rate. The point is to illustrate how the transplants struggled to achieve technical proficiency while finding their own visions.

Their own spin

Some artists need no introduction. John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 seems to have gotten the lessons immediately. He early on developed an urbane style of portraiture that was conventional enough to please wealthy clients, yet touched with the flourishes of quick, loose brush strokes that signaled modernity.

Mrs. Jacob Wendell (1888) is typically elegant. The lady's features are realistic and (of course) flattering and her embroidered silk gown looks worth every penny she must have paid for it. But there are sly details. While her right hand lightly holds a fan, her left clutches it in an iron-fisted grip. The pinky finger is splayed at an odd, awkward angle. Something in her face suggests a similar tension, an implacability or toughness at odds with the portrait's manifest gentility.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935) is another famous name who would become the leading proponent of impressionism in the United States. In April Showers, Champs Elysees, Paris (1888), his signature use of broken brush strokes is not yet evident. His ability to capture an atmospheric mood, though, is well on its way. Hassam could never detach himself from realistic depiction or immerse himself completely in Monet's brand of fluid landscapes in which light was far more important than anything tangible. We see that ambivalence in Afternoon in Pont-Aven, Brittany (1897), painted when the artist was 38.

Like Hassam, Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) used standard compositional effects while experimenting with looser brush strokes as a young painter, although he was more adventurous than Hassam. Compare Along the Seine (1892) to Ramparts, St. Malo (1907) to see how far Prendergast had evolved in his modernist style that compressed illusionistic perspective and used color for startling contrast rather than subtly blended effects.

The always independent Robert Henri (1865-1929) seems to have taken the Paris schools with an "I came, I saw, I shrugged" attitude. Three of his paintings from the 1890s take into account Edouard Manet's visceral treatment of the figure and love of flat painted surfaces, combining them with his own obdurate sense of color.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an admired American member, taken up by the younger set of French artists, especially Edgar Degas. Like him and Renoir, she painted with a soft touch, establishing her reputation in tender, intimate evocations of women and children that transcended that saccharine genre through strong composition, color and bold graphic patterns.

For some artists in this exhibition, Claude Monet cast a formidable shadow from which some never emerged. Dreadful is the word for Mary Fairchild MacMonnies' Garden in Giverny (1901), a screeching affront to color harmonies. Derivative is the word that comes to mind for Theodore Earl Butler's Grainstacks, Giverny (1897).

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), like Henri, stands out as an artist on his own journey. Le Quai des Grands Augustins (1909) is a lonely cityscape, a dramatic curve of pavement bisecting vertical and horizontal slabs of mellow colors.

Something to love

No matter our assessment of individual artists, this is a beautiful exhibition. I'm thinking especially of the more traditional genre works such as Julian Alden Weir's The Oldest Inhabitant (1876), which could be regarded as sentimental manipulation but has a psychological element evocative of Rembrandt. Another example: Robert Reid's Blessing of the Boats (1887-89), which tries to pull even more obviously at the heartstrings but is compelling nonetheless.

Maybe I should know better, but I love Charles Sprague Pierce's A Village Funeral in Brittany (1891). It's meant to elicit an emotional response, and it is in the academic tradition of idealizing and romanticizing the harsh realities of peasant life. Yet the variety of expressions he captures in a row of women's faces, young and old, are true.

Every detail is painted with great precision except for the kneeling woman praying in a doorway. She is only a slight distance from the other women and parallel to two men, all sharply delineated. Only she is painted with blurry, indistinct outlines. It's unexpected, inexplicable and delightful.

Americans in Paris, painted in 1927 by Guy Pene du Bois (1884-1958), is the most recent work on view. What a change from the earliest painting, Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) Paris Courtyard from 1867. In the first, a woman walks alone between grim, enclosing walls. Sixty years later, well-dressed flappers stride along a boulevard with confidence and insouciance. Americans still went to Paris, but at some point they carried less baggage.

Lighting the way

An exhibition of nine paintings from the 1870s to 1890s by Claude Monet (1840-1926) accompany the larger show. They are middling to good, completed in a period when he was emerging as the pre-eminent translator of light and atmosphere. The last one, painted in 1890, is a view of a field strewn with wildflowers. It seems like the finest of the bunch, and though its colors are more strident than later works, it has the same deep feeling for observation and a gifted blending of the dark with the light.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 895-5463 or lennie@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Impressions

"Impressions: Americans in France, 1860-1930" and "Claude Monet: Giverny and the North of France" are at the Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples, through May 13. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $4 students. (239) 597-1900 or www.thephil.org.

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 10:26:18]


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