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October 12, 1999
'FACES OF IMPRESSIONISM': TIME MACHINE MADE OF CANVAS, PAINT
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
People who lived in the 19th century were a lot like you and me, but they didn't worry as much. That's not to say they were happy all the time. In fact, many of them were disillusioned by life. But they were philosophical about it.
It's possible to speak so categorically about 19th-century people - specifically, about affluent French people who lived in the second half of the century - because the Baltimore Art Museum is now offering an exhibit titled "Faces of Impressionism in which pictures by Degas, Manet, Monet, Cassatt, Pissarro and many other artists show men, women and children in a light that is, if anything, more probing, realistic and telling than photography.
The exhibit, which will remain at the Baltimore museum through Jan. 30 (call 410- 396-6310 for information), will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston March 25-May 7 and then at the Cleveland Museum of Art May 28-July 30.
Besides placing welcome emphasis on the impressionists' treatment of human faces and figures, the exhibit brilliantly traces the chronological evolution of the style from the 1850s to the fin de siecle - from such forerunners as Courbet all the way to late Monet and Cezanne. Going through the exhibit rooms is like traveling through a period of French time and getting to know not just the citizens of that time but the changing thought of the artists who made records of them.
A couple of other things the show teaches you about French people in those days:
- They loved their families, but they usually reserved a private, internal place for themselves where they could be alone.
Look at Degas' "Portrait of a Man" (1866); one of the most outstanding works in an outstanding exhibit. That leaning figure is clearly someone's father and someone else's father-in-law, hunched sidewise in his chair during a break in family festivities, perhaps at Christmas or Easter. Food is on the table. No one will let him lift a finger. He's perfectly happy, but he's also perfectly alone with himself and feeling a bit useless.
- The children back then were as pretty and adorable as our children are, but underneath they were different. More was expected of them - their manners were well-honed, and they were not often allowed to be crazy and silly.
It could be argued that the dignity of these children is merely the result of having to sit for a painting while solicitous parents hover nearby. Look again - that "Child with a Hoop" painted by Renoir (1875) can't be older than 4 or 5, but the way she gazes into the middle distance and holds her chubby little arms poised above her hoop isn't just special-occasion comportment, it's a self-awareness that she's been taught from the cradle.
You would be shocked to see this little girl with juice all over her dress, and more shocked if she interrupted a conversation between two grownups.
As for disillusion, it's in evidence everywhere. Men and women are captured with rainy-day realism in gardens and rooms, always mindful of things that might have been - a mother who might have loved them more, a sweetheart who might have stayed, a child who might not have died. But the pictures' subjects are content in their surroundings and with what they have left.
By the same token, one look at them tells you that these people lived before anyone had ever heard of the Holocaust or the atomic bomb. That's why they don't look as worried as us.
Of course, tagging these pictures as examples of "portraiture" is in some cases a bit of a stretch. Some of them, like Renoir's painting of Monet painting in his garden, are landscapes that happen to contain people. Others, like Caillebotte's "Perissoires sur I'Yerres," are depictions of outdoor action in which men are caught up and all but lost in the play of natural forces, rushing water and falling sunlight.
But then such was the Impressionist approach: resolving people, places and things into a unified field of sensation. "Faces of Impressionism" is a field in which you might want to spend an afternoon loitering.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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