Small stories from a big canvas

By Rhonda Dredge

Some small, unfamiliar moments were creeping into the blockbuster Winter Masterpieces at the NGV this year which dedicates several rooms to the visual culture of French Impressionism.

A soft, reflective portrait of Carmen Gandin by Toulouse-Lautrec had crept into the Urban Realisms room.

Carmen was an artist’s model but the job was precarious and fraught with social stigma.

Witness the impact of changing her hair colour from red to brown. The Parisian caricaturist of the city’s nightlife dropped her from his list!

Not all of the artists in this exhibition from Boston were as comfortable painting landscapes en plein air as you might expect in an exhibition devoted to atmosphere.

Renoir, for example, was highly critical of his own work. He thought that his lack of art training had led to excessive experimentation and many agree.

Some of his paintings do seem confused with his pointing out the lack of definition, suggesting he painted with cotton wool.

Children on the Seashore 1883 was done in his studio from sketches and the illustrative nature of the children and their poses seemed more up his alley.

The exhibition was carefully hung by the Boston curators to bring out the controversies and the connections between artists during this formative period of Western art in the late 19th century.

One was the argument that landscapes should be painted directly from observations in the field rather than in the studio.

Many began painting en plein air in the Woods of Fontainbleau. One up and coming artist followed Rousseau along a shady path and was the beneficiary of a few secrets about his palette as a result.

Rousseau favoured Naples yellow and emerald green, both intense colours that de la Peña has managed to dull off rather disappointingly in his A Pool in the Forest, 1860.

Another debate raged over how much a painter should rearrange elements in a landscape for purposes of composition.

Eugène Boudin, an avid painter of very particular seascapes, was prized by Baudelaire for his exactitude of season, hour and wind, while Cezanne clearly favoured skirmishes with reality in his work.

The paintings are cleverly hung to demonstrate the competing interests of composition, sensation and faithfulness to a particular location.

Bursting through all of this back talk is the English painter Alfred Sisley with his lovely subtleties of water in Waterworks at Marley 1876 and Monet with his exuberant colour in Grand Canal 1908.

“An artist’s impression is the life-giving factor,” Sisley said about the way sensation was transferred to the viewer.

All in all, the re-opening of the exhibition was a welcome back for the NGV after another gruesome lockdown and visitors were most appreciative of the elegant layout, escapist landscapes and the room to move.

Gone were the typical lines three or four deep shuffling around in front of the paintings.

Art lovers were politely enjoying the elegant spacing at the NGV while seizing the moment to find out how painters worked up a scene.

French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Gallery of Victoria, until October 3 •

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