There are 119 pieces of art — 120 if you count the two-sided Toulouse-Lautrec drawing — in the Arkansas Arts Center’s “The Impressionists and Their Influence” exhibit that opens Friday, and you will want to spend some time with virtually all of them.
No, there are no Monet haystacks here, or Tahitian Gaugins or Seurat pointillism. Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” remains safely in France. But all those artists are represented — the Monets are particularly fine — and while the Arts Center hasn’t turned into the Musee d’Orsay it has so much to offer in this exhibit that you’ll need to go at least twice, if not three times, to take it all in.
Everybody loves impressionist work, so it’s hard to conceive that when it was new, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was as unacceptable as art as cans of Campbell’s soup were 100 years later.
“Everybody loves” is not an exaggeration, which is why I can write this review using the artists’ last names and nobody wonders who I’m referring to. This popularity is perhaps on the minds of those who run things at the Arts Center, still recovering from its budget-busting “World of the Pharaohs” exhibit of Egyptian artifacts that opened in the Early Dynastic Period and ended last July. (It actually ran only seven and a half months, but surely seemed much longer to both Arts Center regulars and bean counters alike.) There will be no sticker shock here — the tickets are a very reasonable $10 tops (less for seniors, youth, military, etc.) — and the Arts Center can count on a good crowd to see some of the loveliest drawings and paintings ever made, thanks to the Arts Center’s own fine from the collaborating High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Jackson T. Stephens Charitable Trust for Art, and private collectors.
The star of the show is Monet’s “Houses of Parliament in the Fog,” 1903, a painting so ethereal as to be barely there. Monet painted parliament repeatedly, as he did his haystacks and the cathedral at Rouen, to capture the variety of light. This version of “Houses of Parliament” teeters on the edge of beauty, threatening to fall into indifference, but stay with it a bit.
There are four Monets in the exhibit, arranged in chronological order to show the artist’s evolution, interim Director Joe Lampo explained at a press preview. The earliest is “Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil,” 1873, a beautiful canvas of yellows and pale pinks and blues and greens, the dabs of color giving the impression of leaves (to the horror of the French Academy), the short strokes the impression of their reflection in the water. In between that and “Houses of Parliament” are two richly painted Monets that will be familiar to frequent visitors to the Arts Center, one depicting an apple tree in full fruit and the other a river at dusk, both the property of the Stephens Trust.
A small (10 and 5/8 inches by 9 inches) and very Renoir Renoir just acquired by the High, “Woman Arranging Her Hat,” is another highlight, a brilliantly hued combination of brush strokes that form a woman in the foreground and become almost sheer abstraction in the background in their suggestion of trees and rocks.
Pissaro’s “Snowscape with Cows at Montfoucault” is a small beauty, also from the High, painted in whites and masterfully subdued thalo greens, with the most tidy lines preserved for the off-center cows being walked down a snowy lane. Another Pissaro, “Kensington Gardens, London,” from the Stephens Trust, is fascinating in its odd technique. Painted 16 years after “Snowscape,” Pissaro is experimenting here; he’s placed figures in saturated reds and greens and purples atop a flatly-rendered field of sketchy green grass, like cut-outs. In that same off-track vein is one of the show’s many (and wonderful) Vuillards, his “La Villa Les Ecluses, St. Jacut, Brittany,” painted with big patches of flat color. The Arts Center’s own “Le Peintre Forain,” a 46-inch tall pencil by Vuillard, one of my favorite works in the AAC collection, is tucked away here; don’t miss it.
Some surprises for those of us who have only skimmed the surface of impressionist art history: Ker-Xavier Roussel and his “Sleeping Diana.” This painting by Roussel, who was of the Nabi school rather than an impressionist, is crazy fascinating, focusing not on the rural, but the mythical, and not the atmospheric but on wild combinations of hot bright reds with deep aquamarines. A dark skinned woman robed in orange could have stepped right from Gaugin’s work into this canvas.
I’ve just gotten started and there is so much more to write about: Frederic Bazille’s 1865 “The Beach at Sainte-Adresse,” The High’s wonderful Bonnard “The Breakfast”; a pen and ink of a sleeping drunk by Forain (the artist drawn by Vuillard); the family grouping of work by Berthe Morisot, her daughter Julie Manet and her niece Paule Gobbilard; Henri Gabriel Ibels’ “Woman from Behind” and Toulous-Lautrec’s “Etude de Femme” … and then there are the American impressionists, with Cassatt pastels and the Bonnard-influenced Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “Girl in Blue”; the William James Glackens drawing of a crowded American beach next to Childe Hassam’s sophisticated subject matter in the “Tuileries Gardens.”
And I’ve just seen it once. Imagine how one could go on after a couple of visits, after the work has really sunk in.
Some numbers: The exhibit includes 50 works from the Arts Center Foundation collection, all on paper; 29 paintings and 18 works on paper from the High; 11 paintings and five works on paper from the Jackson T. Stephens Charitable Trust for Art, and seven works on paper from private collections. The exhibit runs through June 26.