“Fields in the Month of June” by Charles-Francois Daubigny is one excellent reason to visit France via an art exhibition at a museum in the American midwestern state of Missouri, the Nelson-Atkins. Who knew there was great art in and flowing through Kansas City, the home of a basically defunct public school district? Ouch, irony’s knife-edge is getting a tad sharp these days. No matter, the point of this missive is the wonderful art that has come to visit from October 19, 2013 to February 9, 2014. The sheer size of “Fields in the Month of June” surprised me, as did the dimensions of a number of the other pieces you often view in print and sometimes online. There are the LARGE Daubigny and Dore pieces to a small round photograph of a local regional girl in this exhibition. This serves as a certain metaphor for the entire show–large scope rendered with precise attention paid to small details in the same way painters used photographs to enhance their depictions of whatever was catching their image loving eyes. It’s all absolutely delicious eye feasting as far as I’m concerned.
The number one reason, in my opinion: Gustave Dore’s “Deer In a Pine Forest” (Vosges) 1865. Which seems to have disappeared from cyberspace since I first found a version of it to serve as a tempting main course. In lieu of that incredible image itself, just toss the red figure out of the image below, darken the light, heighten the trees, give the huge painting a wall to own all by itself and you’ll have some notion of why Dore’s painting alone is worth paying the price of admission to the current exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Impressionist France, Visions of Nation From Le Gray to Monet. Note: “Figures by a Woodland Stream,” shown below, is not on display. But it gives a decent notion of the painting that you can almost walk right into-though I wouldn’t turn my toes out of this one either. No way.
The exhibition concentrates on mid 19th century France’s city-scapes, forests, rural areas, trains, water-scapes, artists and the people they painted–no, not the wealthy upper classes wanting their fashionable personages preserved for posterity, but such as “Washerwomen of the Breton Coast,” 1870 by Jules Breton. Oh, yes, the washerwomen are another major reason to catch this exhibition. There’s also Breton’s “The Wounded Seagull,” 1878 and his wonderful take on his wife, “Elodie With a Sunshade”; Bay of Dourarnenez (Woman with Parasol), 1870-71. Hmm, yes, I took a fancy to Breton’s paintings. He has a way with the ladies’ eyes and how they engage the viewer. The Mona Lisa smirks. So what. She’s getting her face done by a painter while she sits around doing nothing except, possibly considering the recent gossip regarding sexual scandals. Breton’s women are not passive objects of affectation. They’re engaged in the landscapes in which they’re consciously inhabiting. They’re magnificent in their own right. Men make war. Women wash clothes. Which one really keeps the world in some state worth living in? So, got it, Jules Breton’s Women are another major reason to see this art show.
Here’s another major reason to go to the art show: a Wet-plate Field Camera w/ Dallinger lens, tripod and equipment from France circa 1870s. For all you digital camera junkies, this huge field camera is a sight to behold. Imagine hauling around over one hundred pounds of wood, glass, metal and what all else in order to take a few pictures. It’s a magnificent specimen of artistic creation you can walk around–no touching allowed–and imagine getting yourself up close to “click” this huge beast’s “buttons.” Yeah, dream on. The products of such burdensome camera beasts are also in evidence in this exhibition–and they are dazzlers in their own rights. Gustave Le Grey’s “Factory,” Terre-Noire, 1851-55, Joseph Vigier’s “Saint Sauveur, Port de Sia, Gavarnie Route,” 1853, along with the photos of Charles Nigre and the unknown photographer Giraudons Artist offer much for the eye and the intellect to consider of times and people long gone, yet glimpsed because these men turned their huge cameras’ lens towards them and pulled the imaging trigger.
Oh and there’s Berthe Morisot’s “The Harbor at Lorient,” 1869. It’s a wonderful study in light, water, white, blues and browns all rendered in the bright light of day with her sister dressed in white. It’s a gorgeous work displayed with some seascapes depicting some seaside people notions modern bikini bathers may find incomprehensible. Those are by the usual Impressionist guys.
Of course you’ll get your fix of Monet and Manet–with more of each in the permanent collection on display for nada all the time. But you will also get to meet and greet some artists you might not think of when wanting to wade into the famous “Waterlilies.” Discover Frederic Bazille, represented by his “Porte de la Reine at Aigues-Mortes,” 1867–a depiction of a 13th century gate to the city. There’s Paul Huet’s beautifully rendered lighting in “The Ruins of the Chataeu of Pierrefonds,” 1867-68. Yes, there are more than a few castles in temporary residence and they’re wonderfully depicted, complete with splashes of red and white to draw attention to the local people en route to other places beyond the paintings’ scopes.
This is a show about context of place and the place is France from her seashores to her Alps–and what a showing it is in the darkened exhibition area with plenty of something for everyone’s taste palette, in my view. There are bright lights, muted atmospheres, and quiet farm scenes complete with bovines. There are even some digitalized art books of glaciers and river scenes. The large and weighty originals rest under glass while your oily human fingers get to flip the their contemporary counterparts by running your fingertips across the glass. What a wonderful statement about the evolution of the photographic art form this is all by itself.
A very nice feature of this show is that once your ticket is bought you can enter and linger as long as you like, go forage for food, and return for another go around the exhibition as often as you care to –on the same day, of course. This isn’t set up to be a line of pushers and shovers roped off from the offerings. You can wander and loiter through the thoughtfully walled spaces with whatever engages your heart and mind–including the pieces on the prehistoric forests which no longer exist as they once did. Theodore Rousseau’s “The Rock Oak” (Forest at Forentainbleus), 1860-67.
One other very lovely surprise for me was a delightfully refreshing street scene of blues, greens and whites by Renoir, “The Grand Boulevard,” 1875. It is simply gorgeous. Go see the exhibition paths for yourself. What are you waiting for? France to come to you? This is about as close to that as you’ll get. But don’t forget, most of these images are long gone. If not for the artists, they wouldn’t exist.
Oops, I almost forgot, in this exhibit there are 125 pieces to view. That’s 125 reasons to go, at the very least. Every reason thereafter is icing on the French Impressionist Cake Walk.
Impressionist France at the Nelson-Atkins
Spencer Art Library Guide
Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet
Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet