It may be difficult to reconcile the work of the Impressionists as they were the radical anti-establishment gang of late 19th and early 20th century. Bucolic gardens, resting women and serene waters are depicted with an atmospheric color palette and a painterly brushwork woven with each artist’s distinctive hand. Different from the French Academe, but certainly not radical and barbaric.

This exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute includes still life, landscape, figure and portrait, illustrating the trends by Monet and several noted artists that set them apart in this innovative departure.

The academic school of painting, taught in the French government schools of art, prescribed neoclassicism: the formal structure of classic antiquity to interpret and moralize the issues of the upper social strata of the times. The paintings of David and Ingres exemplify the powerful line and ideal sculptural form and high surface finish of the Romantic movement, which preceded Impressionism. Color was secondary to these ideals and personal expression was an unacceptable blemish.

With the rise of the working and middle classes, there also rose the interest in portraying  the “heroism of modern life”, evident in painting and literature from the late 19th century going forward into the 20th century.

Monet and the Impressionists combine the themes of the contemporary world with a painterly stylistic expression that did not rely on sculptural form in format. In fact the surfaces at close range seem to be unintelligible, rated by contemporary critics as “unfinished”. The image relies instead on surface “optical mixing”, achieved in the eye of the viewer from a distance.


On loan from the Denver Art Museum, Claude Monet’s painting entitled “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” 1903, dominates the exhibit.  The painter executed multiple encounters of the common man’s view of the bridge crossing the Thames from the same point of reference, at various times of day and under a variety of atmospheric conditions. In this version, spare painterly shapes of industrial factories, the bridge and windswept waters are revealed in Monet’s short choppy brushstrokes. He wrote: “This is not a country where you can finish a picture on the spot. The effects never reappear.” A misty element of mystery marks the painting with the artist’s joy of seeing.

On the same wall is exhibited one of Monet’s large water garden paintings.  The calm, reflective waters are ebbing at your feet and induce a soothing and introspective mood in the viewer. The painting presents a direct contrast to the windy, churning weather pattern of the bridge painting.

An example of a figurative/landscape composition is “Shadows” 1913 by Frederick Carl Frieseke (American).  Frieseke is documented as visiting Monet’s gardens for the first time in 1905. As he returned to reside in the house next to Monet’s over the next 15 years, his color palette became brighter and more chromatic. This painting features a relaxed young woman with a white parasol, posing on the shadowed lawn.

A different trend distinguishing the Impressionists’ movement is the casual portrayal of public and private life, without deference to formality or flattery. “Woman pulling up her stocking”  by Camille Pissarro (French 1830-1903) portrays a momentary slice of life of anyone’s day. The singular woman is seated on a chair in the foreground with an assortment of sundry items cluttering the upper half of the painting.

Similarly, a large pastel by Edgar Degas, who painted at the same time as the Impressionists, entitled “After the Bath” shows a nude female bathing in a private quarter, unaware of the viewer’s eye. The keyhole voyeurism of Degas’s subject matter, the large square format, as well as his inventive pictorial cropping hailed a new trend of compositional experimentation influenced by Japanese woodcuts, which was very instrumental in developing modernity in visual language.

Other artists included in this exhibit are Alfred Sisley, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse.

This writer hope that these highlights will entice the discerning viewer, who can appreciate the diverging fresh directions that distinguish the modern Impressionist movement.

Exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton Ohio EXTENDED through September 22, 2019.

–Marlene Steele

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