Renoir to Remington: Impressionism to the American West

September 21, 2014 through February 1, 2015


Wall text from the exhibition


Life in Nature

Typical French Impressionist paintings are scenes of modern life or landscapes populated by figures. What is called "classic Impressionism" is the style that developed in France in the 1870s, characterized by pure, intense colors; loose, juxtaposed brushstrokes; and an attention to momentary effects of light, atmosphere, and movement. However, around 1880 almost all the major Impressionists began to modify their individual styles. For instance, Camille Pissarro flirted a few years with Neo-Impressionism as he sought greater clarity in his art.

Impressionism began not as a clearly defined stylistic movement but instead as a business venture between disparate artists. They banded together to create a forum for exhibiting their work independently of the controlling, state-sponsored Paris Salon. A principal tie binding most of the participants was the interest in scenes of modern French life. In a similar fashion, two early twentieth-century groups of the American Southwest -- first the Taos Society of Artists and second Los Cinco Pintores of Santa Fe -- came together not to promote a uniform style but rather to provide mutual support for their goal of portraying Southwestern life and landscapes.

Renoir to Remington includes paintings by four "pre-Impressionists" -- Eugène Boudin, Camille Corot, Johan Barthold Jongkind, and Stanislas Lépine -- which recall another important context for the beginnings of Impressionism, namely the tradition of painting en plein air, or out-of-doors. These pre-Impressionist painters provided an important precedent by favoring plein-air painting as a study tool, and by substituting scenes from the French countryside for the classicizing historical landscapes promoted by the French Academy.

It was the Impressionists, though, who took the next step by upholding the sketchy aspect of a plein-air work as a valued quality in painting intended for public display. To repeat two key terms from art writing of the period, the Impressionists embraced plein-air painting as an unmediated vehicle for translating the "effect" of the motif and for expressing the "impressions" of the artist. In turn, these paired concepts -- 1) rendering the overall effect or atmosphere of a scene and 2) expressing one's artistic sensibilities and impressions before nature -- have inspired many artists drawn to the special landscape and life of the American Southwest.


Painting the Figure

Two of the leading Impressionists most committed to figure and portrait painting were Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renoir's 1890 painting Heads of Two Young Girls makes interesting comparison with the two female portraits on either side of it: the 1914 Natalie in a Blue Skirt by William J. Glackens, an early twentieth-century New York painter who became increasingly interested in Renoir's use of color; and the 1939 Portrait of a Navajo Indian Woman by Nora Lucy Mowbray Cundell.

The three pictures feature visible brushwork and a palette of contrasting reds and greens (together with bold blue in Glackens's case). The artists share an interest in describing the unique complexions of their subjects: Natalie's porcelain-white skin touched up with rouge on the cheeks, the heat- and sun-flushed faces of the two girls, and the milky brown coloration of the Navajo woman's face and lips.

Comparing the handling of each work more closely, Glackens's technique appears more feathery, Renoir's more fluid and curvilinear, and Cundell's more structured. This last artist utilizes a greater variety of approaches across the surface -- from the thinly painted background, to the thicker painting of the clothing, to the tighter execution of the face, where the smaller brushstrokes "stitch" together to model form and describe light and shade across its surface.

To summarize the methods and effects in these three similar yet dissimilar paintings, Glackens has captured his fashionable cross-legged sitter with a distracted, slightly oblique expression, rendering her in deeply glowing colors to create dramatic visual appeal. Renoir has utilized lighter tints to complement the freshness of his two young subjects absorbed in their own activity, transforming them into aesthetic symbols of youthful grace and idyllic nature. Combining a gamut of brighter and more neutral tones, Cundell's painting possesses a more muted decorative quality. The artist's portrait manifests her desire to leave a record of the physiognomy, presence, and individuality of her subject. Viewed head-on, her Navajo woman possesses an open stare that returns our gaze yet avoids meeting it fully.


Atmospheric and Lighting Effects

Impressionist brushwork and colors expanded the possibilities of rendering special effects of light or atmosphere and expressing their fleeting quality -- from figures bathed in ambient light to rising and setting suns or snowy landscapes. Degas specialized in evocative scenes of dance or popular entertainment lit by the gas lamps of Parisian establishments such as the Opéra and music-hall cafés. The nearby picture Ballet in the Park, painted by Degas's American follower Everett Shinn, takes the interest in light effects one step further by combining the artificial lights of the stage with the natural glow of the moon. In the realm of Southwest art, an interesting counterpoint to the artificial lighting of Degas or Shinn is the light of the campfire, as represented for example in the works by Gilbert Gaul and Joseph Henry Sharp or the later artist Duane Bryers.


Southwest Vistas

Rounding out the exhibition are panoramic views and vistas by artists intent on capturing the unique natural beauty of the American Southwest. Their pictures reveal a new theme distinct from the landscapes or cityscapes of the French Impressionists, who directed their attention almost exclusively to inhabited scenes in and around Paris or sometimes the Normandy coast. In this way then, such artists of the Southwest -- ranging in time from the early twentieth-century San Antonio master Julian Onderdonk to the living San Antonio painter Cliff Cavin -- have expanded the thematic reach of Impressionism to include the grandeur of unspoiled nature. The works on view variously describe both the visual and emotive effects of the Southwest's arid atmosphere, clear light, and rugged landscape -- from plains, mountains, and canyons to limpid, cloud-strewn skies -- and the myriad hues that blush and bloom on rocky terrain at different times of day, season, or weather.


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