The MFA's new major exhibition, Impressionist Still Life, features Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, van Gogh and other masters of the Impressionist movement
by Andrew King
Just as the great American poet Walt Whitman believed he could see the universe in a blade of grass, so too did the Impressionists of late 19th-century France discover the expressive possibilities in the everyday objects of still-life painting. In collaboration with The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts presents Impressionist Still Life in its Gund Gallery from February 17-June 9 - the first major exhibition in the world devoted to the full arc of this era.
Chronologically displayed, the exhibit features nearly 100 works by 16 of the greatest Impressionists, from Monet to Manet, Chardin to Cezanne, Morisot to van Gogh, and explores the evolution of one of the most aesthetically influential movements in the history of art.
As with many shifts in creative thinking, Impressionism found new light in an old medium. By the mid-1800s, artists such as Monet, Bazille and Renoir showed their respect for the old masters of an otherwise unappreciated class of still-life painters by enlivening their color palettes and experimenting with dimension. Monet's Jar of Peaches (1866), for example, depicts fruit through glass and liquid, casting shadows and refracting light in ways never seen before in still life. Around the same time, the dark master of the Impressionists, Paul Cezanne, created works such as Still Life with Bread and Eggs (1865), a simple subject that was cooled by the modernity of his stark black background.
Impressionist Still Life continues with pieces from the late 1860s and early 1870s that demonstrate the collaborative efforts of the movement's most talented artists, such as Edouard Manet, whose Bouquet of Violets (1872) details a fan beside a bunch of flowers and a note bearing the name of Berthe Morisot, a friend and fellow artist to whom he paid homage.
The subtleties of insider influences and renewed color schemes were not the only innovations of the time. The subjects themselves became literally and metaphorically released from their traditional contexts. In Bazille's Flowers (1868), the blossoms spill onto the table, while leaves and branches reach in and out of the painting from all sides. And contrary to the typical staged arrangement, Monet's The Tea Set (1872) is a skewed, informal work with objects captured randomly on the canvas.
Many of the paintings at the height of Impressionism's popularity were influenced by this randomness and anonymity, along with a sense of the modern world's increasing speed of consumption. Edgar Degas' The Millinery Shop (1882-86) depicts hats for sale, while Gustave Caillebotte's fruit stands and buffets capture the ephemeral beauty of produce waiting to be eaten.
The exhibit finishes with the later works of Degas, Manet and
younger artists such as van Gogh and Gauguin. But Cezanne is by far
the star of the show, with 15 paintings on display, including the
hauntingly beautiful series of skulls that broke open the ironic
possibilities for subject matter and style, later influencing the
works of 20th-century iconoclasts like Braque and Picasso.
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