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"Monet, Renoir, and the Impressionist Landscape"
2001-01-21 until 2001-04-15
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Houston, TX, USA

Monet, Renoir, and the Impressionist Landscape beautifully illustrates the rise of landscape painting as the dominant genre of the avant-garde—one of the great dramas of 19th-century painting. Throughout art history, landscape paintings were considered less ambitious than history paintings or portraits. Between 1850 and 1900, however, artists introduced exciting innovations in the art of landscape. Landscape paintings were increasingly in demand by middle-class patrons wishing to decorate their urban apartments with pictures of the countryside. From Jean-François Millet to Vincent van Gogh, artists sidestepped the centuries-old tradition of history painting. Instead, they focused on modern values of color, light, and brush stroke.

The exhibition opens with an early landscape by Claude Monet, Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur, placed within the context of the Realist landscape style developed by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, and Théodore Rousseau. In the 1850s and 1860s, a group of artists known as the Barbizon School boldly diverged from the classical tradition of creating idealized, Italianate landscapes and instead explored their native French countryside. They produced spontaneous sketches done outdoors, and presented them as completed works. These innovations inspired Monet, Auguste Renoir, and the younger generation of Impressionists, who later developed a new way of painting plein-air subjects that emphasized luminous color and atmospheric effects.

The core of the exhibition is 36 masterpieces created by the Impressionist generation, including 13 stunning works by the most steadfast Impressionist master, Monet. This section surveys the development of the Impressionist landscape in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Monet’s Entrance to the Village of Vétheuil in Winter and Grainstack (Sunset), and Renoir’s Rocky Crags at L’ Estaque show these two artists’ spontaneous, improvisational style whereas Edgar Degas’s At the Races in the Countryside and Paul Cézanne’s Turn in the Road reveal the movement’s more refined, cerebral character. Contemporaries of the Impressionists who worked in a traditionalist mode, represented by François-Louis Francais and Henri-Joseph Harpignies, enrich the story of landscape painting during this dynamic moment.

The concluding section of the exhibition examines the profound legacy of the Impressionists on landscape painting. Their stylistic innovations were imitated and modified by artists working in their own time, such as Jean Charles Cazin and Léon Augustin Lhermitte, as well as by younger artists like Paul Gauguin, van Gogh, and Paul Signac. Works such as van Gogh’s great Houses at Auvers signal the new generation’s rejection of the adamant naturalism of Impressionism in favor of a more expressionistic treatment of nature.

The works in this exhibition tell the fascinating story of the development of the Impressionist landscape by artists both famous and lesser known. These artists’ innovations indeed reflect the dramatic changes of 19th-century painting.

Vincent van Gogh,
Houses at Auvers, 1890,
oil on canvas,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
bequest of John T. Spaulding.

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