Claude Monet, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), oil on canvas; courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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A version of this article originally appeared in the August 5, 2002 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 27).
Another Impressionist show? That’s how most of us who take an interest in the art scene reacted to the news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would present The Age of Impressionism: European Painting from the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen. It’s a question laced with cynicism. Any show dedicated to Impressionist art equals boffo box office for the institution hosting it–one can readily imagine the powers that be at the Met sitting abruptly at attention when presented with the umpteenth opportunity to exhibit Monet, Manet, Degas et al.
The financial realities of mounting major museum exhibitions are inescapable, of course, and I’m not oblivious to how profits can aid in bolstering an institution’s commitment to culture. Nor am I unaware of the intended purpose of wooing a general public with stuff they like–once hooked, or so the reasoning goes, they’ll stay hooked. Yet there has to be a sociological study in the offing that examines the differences in how the general public and a more specialized audience view exhibitions of art. I bring this up because a painter friend recently told me how, when he went to the Met with family who were visiting from the West Coast, his relatives insisted on seeing The Age of Impressionism rather than the Thomas Eakins retrospective. Being an amenable host, my friend acquiesced, though not without griping: “Listen, I like the Impressionists as much as the next guy, but enough is enough.” He went on to note that “any exhibition that includes even a single painting by Renoir is, by definition, totally worthless.”
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Well, I can’t stomach Renoir either, but I’m not about to badmouth The Age of Impressionism. Notwithstanding the five Renoirs, it’s an amazing exhibition. This is where the general public, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for Impressionist art, proves itself right: Impressionism was one of history’s most astonishing artistic epochs. Its riches are limitless. How could anyone ever not want to celebrate it?
More various than deep, the Ordrupgaard Collection is neither definitive nor encyclopedic. Still, any curator who does intend to mount a definitive show of Impressionist painting had better write down the Ordrupgaard’s phone number; there’s at least a baker’s dozen of masterpieces in the collection. If some of the paintings are less masterpieces than curiosities–like Ingres’ depiction of Dante, Delacroix’s portrait fragment of the novelist Georges Sand and a painting by Eva Gonzales, Manet’s pupil who met an untimely death–then they qualify as curiosities of a high order. I’d include in the same category Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s sketch for Le Moulin de la Galette (1875-76) and The Ruse, Roedeer Hunting Episode (Franche-Comté) (1866), a weird, waxworks-like tableau by the overrated Gustave Courbet.
The Ordrupgaard Collection came into being through the dedication of one man, Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936). An astute businessman and a self-starter, Hansen made his fortune in the insurance industry, his greatest achievement being the founding of Dansk Folkeforsigkringanstalt, a company that provided life insurance to those of modest means. Inspired and assisted by a painter friend, he began collecting art at age 21. He would eventually form a consortium, along with another Danish collector and the art dealers Winkel & Magnussen, with the aim of “obtaining good and outstanding art for Scandinavia.” Their sights were set predominantly, if not exclusively, on French painting. They would eventually amass a world-class collection.
Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop (ca. 1882-86), oil on canvas, 39-3/8″ x 43-5/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Disaster struck in 1922 with the collapse of the Landmandsbanken, the bank from which Hansen and his cohorts borrowed heavily. In order to pay off his debts, Hansen was forced to sell off a heartbreaking chunk of the collection: Seven Cézannes, nine Monets, six Manets, four Gaugins, along with pieces by Degas, Pissarro, Sisley, Corot, Delacroix and Daumier, were sold at auction. (One of the sale’s beneficiaries would be the redoubtable Albert C. Barnes.) Disappointed but not deterred, Hansen was intent on rebuilding the collection and did just that–not to its former glory, perhaps, but to a glorious end nonetheless. It would not be reading too much into things to say that Hansen’s drive is in evidence throughout The Age of Impressionism.
And what evidence there is! Count among the exhibition’s showstoppers Camille Corot’s Hamlet and the Gravedigger (1870-75), Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Resting under a Tree (1864-66), Charles François Daubigny’s Seascape (Overcast) (1874), Edouard Manet’s Basket of Pears (1882), and The Flood: Banks of The Seine, Bougival (1873), a solid-as-a-rock tour de force by Alfred Sisley. Berthe Morisot’s Woman with a Fan: Portrait of Mme. Marie Hubbard (1874) is the single finest canvas I have seen by this artist. Claude Monet’s roughhewn and masterful The Cliffs near Sainte-Adresse, Overcast (1881-82) points resolutely to the 20th century. Still Life, a 1901 picture by Odilon Redon, locates more poetry in three peppers, a lemon and a water jug than this Symbolist painter ever discovered in the confines of his own cobwebbed imagination. As for Edgar Degas, his two New Orleans pictures remind us that we have yet to fully comprehend his incisive genius.
The Age of Impressionism also includes, in its two introductory galleries, a sampling of Danish painting. That these works don’t match those of the French artists isn’t surprising, although I would disagree with one observer whom I overheard say to his wife, “Let’s skip all these Danes and get to the real stuff.” A lot of the Danish work is real enough, and appealingly odd. Christen Købke and Wilhem Hammershøi, an artist who transmuted Vermeer’s quietude into the sparest melancholy, are painters deserving of the appreciative attention they’ve received in recent years. I hope some of that attention will extend to L.A. Ring, whose three paintings impress with their pinched and forbidding clarity. As it stands, the Danish contingent serves as estimable filler for a surprisingly sharp summer crowd-pleaser.
© 2002 Mario Naves