It's hard for Americans living in the 21st century to appreciate the radical content of French impressionist art. We typically associate this 19th century movement with abstract daubs of color coalescing into demure images of dames strolling with parasols on windswept dunes, grain stacks and Gothic church facades in evening light, and water lilies floating in Japanese-style gardens.
Long before their luminous painterly style became the most beloved art movement of the western world, the impressionists were marginalized artists living and working at the edge of society, identifying with the poor and the dispossessed. Social tension lies just below the surface of the paintings in the exhibition Labor and Leisure: Impressionist and Realist Masterpieces from a Private Collection currently on view at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
The context for these paintings and the art works in the sister show Impressionism: Masterpieces on Paper are two kinds of revolutions. The first were the political revolutions that swept France in the 19th century, endless pendulum swings between monarchists on the far right and democrats on the left. The bloody battles between royalists and republicans for control of the government often left nothing more than dead bodies strewn on cobblestone barricades and the smell of gun powder hanging in the Parisian air. The impressionists were born into a society in political upheaval, long periods of brutal dictatorship punctuated by often violent outbursts of democratic fervor.
An even greater social revolution was also taking place as people left their farms for the city. Poor, landless peasants looking for work came to Paris and other large cities by the thousands. This was the age of the industrial revolution and the old cities became overcrowded, horrible places, not unlike Charles Dickens' London. Urbanization led to higher literacy rates, the clamor for democratic and economic rights, and a heightened awareness among European industrial workers that looked like a proto-Occupy movement.
Starting in the middle of the century, artists began documenting and commenting on those profound changes. They painted the bustling city and new bourgeois patrons lined up to buy the works. For the early impressionists, the city was not just their métier; it was also their favorite subject. Claude Monet's images of smoke-filled train stations or crowded pedestrian bridges mirrored the utopian vigor of the industrial age.
Yet, in the minds and hearts of the typical urban worker and artist, there was still an élan for the countryside and village.
Monet and his friends ultimately fled the frenzy of modern urban life for the Normandy coast and sought refuge in villages like Sainte Addresse, Argenteuil, Trouville and, of course, Giverny. In his celebrated studio and gardens at Giverny, Monet found both the solitude and subjects he sought for his paintings. Those impressionist scenes of leisurely life on the shore and in the garden, so vividly represented in the two exhibitions at MMAC, were the escapist fantasies of people exhausted by the pace of modern life.
Ironically, those same rural images were extremely popular in the cities. People loved seeing their countryside in paintings. Wealthy urban collectors, who did not exactly identify with the poor, still found it easy to romanticize the life of the peasant. They loved the paintings of Jules Breton or prints by Jean-Francois Millet. The working poor, weavers, flax pickers and gleaners of Michelangelesque proportions became the heroes of this art, no matter how destitute, desperate or tragic their actual lives were.
When the aristocratic Eduard Degas painted child ballerinas or Henri Toulouse-Lautrec sketched sweating dancers in the garish lights of Parisian dance halls, they were indeed "slumming" with people in the lowest echelons of society. Degas' ballerinas now decorate many an American adolescent's bedroom. In their day, however, they were not far from prostitutes. These women, whose hard lives were so faithfully recorded by these artists, inhabited the demi-monde of the beer hall, circus and hippodrome. In that decadent light, the classes mingled and violated all forms of social propriety.
The two exhibitions at MMAC only hint at this world, but its modern pulse can certainly be felt. The tensions between urban and rural life, romanticism and realism, and labor and leisure that characterized that rapidly changing society are just below the surface.
Check out Dr. Gloria Groom's lecture The School of Nature in French Art: Realism to Impressionism at the Montana Theatre Mon., Dec. 3, at 8 PM. The Labor and Leisure reception at the PARTV Center lobby is Thu., Dec. 6, from 4 to 6 PM. Free.
H. Rafael Chacón is a professor of art history and criticism in the School of Art at The University of Montana.