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French Impressionism and Boston: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts

November 19, 2005 - March 5, 2006


French Impressionism and Boston:  Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts featuring fifty-three masterworks from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston explores the influence of the French Impressionist painters on Boston's artists and collectors during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Boston was the first American city to embrace French Impressionism, the MFA Boston began its collection of Impressionism before either the Metropolitan or the Art Institute of Chicago, its only rivals in the late 19th century.  The museum's collection is therefore not just one of the largest but certainly one of the best in the world. French Impressionism and Boston:  Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts marks the first time that so many Impressionist paintings have been lent by one museum to another institution in Florida.

This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition will make its American debut at the Norton Museum of Art on November 19, 2005 where it will be on view through March 5, 2006. It was previously seen in Nagoya, Japan, and the Royal Academy, London.

Of the fifty-three paintings, twelve are by Monet, spanning the artist's mature career from his days in Argenteuil to his later work at Giverny, including Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist's Garden at Argenteuil, 1875, Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny, circa 1875 and Waterlilies, 1905.  Other notable French artists include Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Their work will be shown alongside American artists such as Childe Hassam, William Morris Hunt, John Singer Sargent and Edmund Charles Tarbell. 

Dr. Christina Orr-Cahall, Director of the Norton Museum of Art, comments, "We are delighted to have been selected as the only U.S. venue for this magnificent exhibition. It will be the first time that visitors to the Museum will be able to see the juxtaposition of masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Manet, and others with major works by American Impressionists such as Hassam and Sargent. The importance of these artists cannot be underestimated and the relationship between Impressionism in France and its imprint on the Boston artists and collectors is highly visible."

Eloquently surveying the development of Impressionism in both France and America, French Impressionism and Boston will tell the fascinating story of how the latest and most advanced examples of French art came to be collected by eager Bostonians during the second half of the nineteenth century. 

During this time period, Boston was home to some of the best-informed and most progressive collectors of modern painting in the United States.  These collectors were among the first to embrace the successive waves of stylistic innovation occurring in France, and the most avid collectors of modern French art.  Not surprisingly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) was the first American museum to organize a Monet retrospective (in 1911) and to purchase a work by Edgar Degas, Race Horses at Longchamps, 1871, which is included in this exhibition.  


Exhibition Highlights:

· Edgar Degas (French, 1834­1917): Race Horses at Longchamp,1871, possibly reworked in 1874.

· Childe Hassam (American, 1859­1935): Grand Prix Day,1887.

· Edouard Manet (French, 1832­1883) Street Singer,about 1862.

· Claude Monet (French, 1840­1926): Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist's Garden in Argenteuil,1875.

· Claude Monet (French, 1840­1926): Water Lilies[Water Lilies (I)],1905.

· Claude Monet (French, 1840­1926): Grand Canal, Venice,1908.

· Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841­1919): Grand Canal, Venice,1881.

· John Singer Sargent (American, 1856­1925): Helen Sears,1895. 


Millet and the Barbizon School:

Boston's unique love affair with French paintings began in the 1850s, when the charismatic artist and taste-maker William Morris Hunt developed a broad, luminous style that reflected his enthusiasm for the work of the French Barbizon School.  Hunt's aesthetic interests and his friendship with Jean François Millet resulted not only in the MFA's unparalleled collection of Barbizon paintings -- including Millet's Three Men Shearing Sheep in a Barn, about 1852, and End of the Hamlet of Gruchy,1866 -- but also in the adoption of that style by a number of Boston artists. Like Hunt, many other American artists served collectors who were anxious to have their potential purchases evaluated by someone whose aesthetic judgment they trusted. 

Aside from Millet, the French painter who most inspired Boston artists and collectors was Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose poetic landscapes, like Forest of Fontainebleau (1846) and Bathers in a Clearing (about 1870-75), seemed tailor-made for a community deeply associated with the naturalist writings of New Englanders Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

Boston collectors had distinct tastes in both French and American art.  They favored pastoral scenes of modest scale and often expressed enthusiasm for paintings that others dismissed as sketchy and unfinished.  Their clear preferences supported, with equal fervor, a younger generation of artists who painted in a loosely finished style that would become known as Impressionism. 


Impressionism Comes To Boston:

This taste for atmospheric landscapes continued when a new French technique, Impressionism, was introduced to Boston in the 1870s.  Once again, the city's collectors, artists and critics were eager to embrace it.  Such local painters as John Singer Sargent, Theodore Wendel, Lilla Cabot Perry and Philip Leslie Hale all worked in France at Giverny, Monet's home, and adopted his bright palette and broken brushwork.  Examples of works by these artists in the exhibition include, respectively:  Helen Sears (1895); Bridge at Ipswich (about 1905); Open Air Concert (1890); and Landscape (about 1890).

Impressionist pictures came to Boston in such quantity and through so many different channels that the adoption of the style by local artists seemed inevitable.  Even if they did not travel to France, the city's painters could see these modern canvases in exhibitions in Boston, in the collections of their own patrons, and as adapted in the work of their American colleagues.  Boston artists were among the earliest American painters to embrace Impressionism, revising it to fulfill their own needs and helping to popularize the style throughout the United States. Many of these artists also acted as advisors to Boston collectors, and by 1892, there were enough Monets in local hands that a solo exhibition of the French painter's work could be held at the St. Botolph Club -- a local fraternity of art lovers that had hosted exhibitions since its founding in 1880 -- an event that was followed by four other exhibitions before 1903. 

Boston artists, so quick to embrace Impressionism, devoted themselves to it for a long time, as is evident in such works as Hale's French Farmhouse (about 1893), Benson's Calm Morning (1904), and Childe Hassam's Bathing Pool, Appledore (1907).  Unlike their French exemplars, most of the Americans who adopted Impressionism became integral members of the artistic establishment.  Boston artists played a significant role in shaping the collections of many of the city's most adventurous patrons.  Their aesthetic interests helped to make Boston a vital center for modern French art in the nineteenth century.  With riches from both French and American artists readily available, Boston also became an important locus for public display and many of these magnificent works became part of the extraordinary collection of the MFA, Boston. 



A richly illustrated catalogue, titled Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting, published by RA publications, is available from the Museum Store. Erica Hirschler, Senior Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston selected the exhibition and provided the lead essay for the catalogue.


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