Sunday, July 6, 2014

Chicago: The Impressionism Experience

Note: This is the third part of my three-part travelogue about Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago features a stellar collection of French Impressionism, other Impressionism, and post-Impressionism.  It is, perhaps, unmatched in the world and certainly unsurpassed though, of course, I haven’t seen the great collections in London and Paris. There are bountiful paintings by Renoir, Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro, Seurat, Caillebotte, Morisot, Cassatt, Whistler, Sargent, among others.  The Institute places the French front and center.  Through the main entrance you go up three short flights of superbly designed very wide stairs in an ample lobby featuring a wonderful female nude torso statue.
The main entrance lobby.  I took this shot on Monday afternoon. Traffic was light and I waited to get this without visitors in the shot.  The glass doors in the shade of the upper right open into the French Impressionism exhibit. 
When you enter the Impressionist collection, usually more crowded than many other sections of the museum given the popularity of Impressionism these days, you are greeted by Gustave Caillebotte's large and brilliant Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877). It is grand in size and obviously one of the best prizes in the Institute, a highly respected, world famous work of art.  I have seen this painting for many years in art books.  I have read about it and seen video lectures on it. But seeing it for the first time, the size of it, the superb technique and perspective, all the many background details…it was a wow moment.
The large and famous Paris Street, Rainy Day by Caillebotte greets visitors entering the Impressionism collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.  It is an impressive work to witness.
But my attention toward this painting was initially brief.  It fixed my view as I opened the glass doors and entered the collection, exiting the lobby entrance area.  I walked up and gazed at it only for a few seconds before my face turned to my right and I noticed an entire wall of paintings by Pierre-Augusta Renoir.  I immediately gravitated toward them, studying each in its turn before finally returning to the Caillebotte.  There are twelve Renoirs altogether with a wonderful Morisot mixed in with them.  An impressive gathering around the Caillebotte and I don’t recall ever seeing so many Renoirs in one place. 
One of twelve Renoirs around the Caillebotte.  Young Woman Sewing (1879).  Women sewing was a common theme in Renoir's work.
Detail of the flowers above.  Extraordinary work.  I looked at the many Renoirs for a very long time, more than the Caillebotte.
I experienced one of the high points of my life in Chicago.  I saw my favorite painting by my favorite painter for the first time in my life.  Art means more to me than religion.  It fact it may be my religion, I don't know.  But to witness Two Sisters (1881) by Renoir was like experiencing a personal journey to Mecca or something.  This painting is so delicate and beautiful and innocent and vibrant with color and mood and energy.  It is a rich combination of things, like all high art, and it deserves to take its place alongside the loftiest company, in my opinion. I can now say I have seen my three favorite Renoir paintings. In Boston, it is the couple dancing.  In DC it is the boating party. Now this, the summit of them all, in Chicago.  How fortunate I am.
Jennifer took this pic of me with my favorite Renoir; an amazing moment for me personally. Is that older sister looking at me? 
Two Sisters is flanked by Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (1875) and Near the Lake (1879).  Both paintings are marvelous.  Their selection to frame and accent Two Sisters shows a lot of creative thought by the Institute about displaying this art. Near the Lake supports the bluish tone of Two Sisters while Fournaise is directly connected with Two Sisters, both being painted at the same location, Maison Fournaise, along with Luncheon of the Boating Party, which we saw in DC last year. Obviously Renoir admired this location along the Seine.
The three-work restaurant on the Seine art is one the best examples, among many, of an artist fully absorbed in the moment, able the paint masterpiece after masterpiece within a punctual, brilliant explosion of creativity.  It was an especially powerful moment for me when I realized, for the first time, that the brilliant red hat of the older girl in Two Sisters is juxtaposed against the Seine, the river which, like our Mississippi River) has a large cultural connotation in France.  Knowing this deepened my appreciation for the work even more.
Almost the exact moment that I saw Two Sisters for the first time.  It is well anchored with two other excellent Renoirs.  The three are hung on a short wall after you pass the Caillebotte. Here we see Jennifer observing along with a few other visitors.
A detail of the older sister's face.  The famous red hat is positioned against the Seine, which is in the background past some growth along the water's edge.
Detail of the younger sister's face and hat.  Renoir was his most brilliant in the way he depicted accenting flowers in his works, in this case the flowers in the little girl's fancy hat.  You can see each pain-staking brush stroke.  Her eyes are stunning to me.
Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise.  Renoir (1875).  Compare this work with Luncheon of the Boating Party and you will see many similarities in color and tone.  This is one fine example among many of depicting the nature of leisure among the middle class in the late 19th century. 
The Renoir experience was breathtaking for me but there are other great artists featured in that entry room.  The third wall in the entry room to the Impressionist collection has no Renoirs. Instead it features a Pissarro, another Morisot, a Manet, and several wonderful works by Monet. Collectively, this room was such an inspiring and sacred moment for me, a moment of Being.  I spent more time in front of these works than any other paintings in the Art Institute.

Passing out of this room through a short bridge way you come to the large and equally world famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) by Georges Seurat.  Jennifer was not that wowed by this work but for me it seemed really interesting and wonderful due to its size, composition, and "Pointillism" technique.  An intentionally pixilated masterpiece. There are other, much smaller Seurat’s in this room along with some excellent work by other Impressionists. A small side room is filled with paintings, drawings and poster works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – certainly more by this artist than I have seen anywhere else.  His At the Moulin Rouge (1895) made a particular impression upon me, but I did not get a clear photo of it.
Seurat's La Grande Jatte is one of the museum's big draws.  In most cases we were able to take photos with minimal or no visitors in the shot.  But the Institute was well-attended during both of the days we were there. Jennifer snapped this one of me among the crowd gathered in front of this great work.
Toulouse-Letrec.  Moulin de la Galette (1889).
A small preliminary study of La Grande Jatte by Seurat. Oil Sketch for "La Grande Jatte" (1884).  This small work is one of 24 such "sketches" Seurat made of this theme as he completed his masterwork.
It turns out that there are probably more works by Claude Monet in the collection than even works by Renoir. Several of Monet's most famous paintings are in Chicago including six of his numerous "hay stack" works and three of his many “water lily” paintings, featuring exquisitely detailed brush strokes.  There is a healthy sampling of Cezanne and Pissarro, of Gauguin and two famous Van Goghs.  A couple of Rodin sculptures are the only accenting pieces for this section of the highly concentrated collection.
Monet.  Water Lily Pond (1900).  One of many times Monet painted this bridge. Chicago probably does not have the best water lily paintings by Monet but those present are nevertheless remarkable.
A slight detail of the painting above.  Revealing more of Monet's brush stroke work.
Jennifer took this extreme close-up of part of one of the lily paintings.  The use of color, often sparingly, reflects a sensitivity rivaled among Impressionists only by Renoir himself.  A delicate blend of many colors in a canvased space of about 7-8 inches in this shot.  Just beautiful.
Monet.  On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868).
Monet.  The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1867).
Monet. Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877). This is one of my favorite works by Monet.
Monet.  Stacks of Wheat (Sunset Snow Effect), 1891.  One of six "hay stack" paintings lined up in a row together when we were in Chicago.  Monet used these stacks to study the play of color and light at different times of day and in different seasons.
Monet.  Water Lilies (1906).  I especially enjoyed this water lily depiction.
After you pass through the "main" Impressionist collection you can enter a series of side rooms which contain even more from this period.  There are many Manet's featured here.  One of the most striking pieces in this part of the collection is a marvelous self-portrait of Frederic Bazille, a painter of great promise whose life was tragically cut short by the Franco-Prussian War.
Frederic Bazille.  Self-Portrait  (1866).  I took this photo.  All artwork presented in these posts was photographed by either Jennifer or me.
Camille Pissarro.  Haying Time (1892).  A detail.  The brush stroke work in this painting, the flow of globular paint, was impressive to me, as were many others in the collection.
Edouard Manet.  Fish (Still Life), 1864.  I have always liked this painting and Manet is one of my favorite painters. 
A detail I took from The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh (1889).
Jennifer took this shot.  She really adored this painting of many hats by Edgar Degas.  The Millinery Shop (1886).
Impressionism by American artists like Mary Cassatt, who worked in Paris with Degas and other major French artists, is featured in the American art collection at the Institute.  But I will include them in this post as they fit completely with the style and influence of the French.  Cassatt’s famous The Child’s Bath (1893) is post-Impressionism and created after her return to America.  Mixed in with this masterwork were some incredible paintings by John Singer Sargent, an artist whose work Jennifer and I continue to admire more each year.  
Mary Cassatt.  The Child's Bath (1893).  A defining moment in American art.
John Singer Sargent.  Portrait of Charles Deering (1917).  Detail. Sargent is a rising star in my awareness of great painters.
Another Sargent.  The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907).  A detail. This was a wonderful work to see.  It reveals much of Sargent's command for mood, tone, and detail.
A new Impressionist discovery for us was Childe Hassam.  I may have seen some of his work elsewhere but I do not recall it.  There were 4 or 5 works in the collection that I initially noticed as new and masterfully accomplished.  Then I noticed all of them were by Hassam, so now I have a new artist to learn about and admire.  As with any great art museum trip, it is not just about seeing work for the first time with which you are familiar, but also in finding new creativity to broaden the spectrum of your appreciation for Art. 
Childe Hassam.  New England Headlands (1899).  The technique in this work reminds me of Pissarro.
Hassam.  New York Street (1902).
Detail of above painting allowing you to see the exquisite intricacy in Hassam's work.  Notice the black stitching in the woman's right glove.  The brilliant few short strokes of red and yellow create a vibrant hat against the grey winter day in 1902. An alluring work.
One of the many things the Impressionists explored in their great works was the emergence of leisure time among the middle class in the late 19th century.  The Renoir paintings and the huge Seurat work along with Sargent and others reflect relaxed Sunday afternoons, smoking cigarettes and enjoying wine and unperturbed conversation. There are paintings of people taking naps, sitting adrift in boats, and just strolling along.  The beauty to be found in these leisurely pursuits communicates to me today.  Is this beauty the Beauty, the Platonic Idea?  Could be.

The Chicago trip itself was a manifestation of this same beautiful leisure in my own life.  So, I felt connected with Impressionism on many levels at the Art Institute.  In this case, instead of art reflecting back on itself, in many cases it was me, as the observer, reflecting back upon myself through the many masterpieces I witnessed in those sacrosanct rooms and halls.

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