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Popular impressionists once rebels of art world

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Cox News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It is one of the art world's favorite sagas. And a clich?, invoked by every "rebel" artist spanked with a bad review.

In 1874, a band of 30 artists, fed up with state-sanctioned salons, mounted their own exhibition at the Paris studio of the famed photographer Nadar. Many critics were hostile to these "Impressionists," but their movement would eventually triumph.

It's a good tale, and true. But instead of emphasizing the initial derision that greeted the artists, you could just as easily marvel at how relatively quickly the new art movement succeeded.

Today, we have a hard time seeing Impressionist paintings with fresh eyes, so popular and reproduced have they become.

There were eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. By then, some of the original artists were leaning in different directions, but the style itself was being adopted around the world, and nowhere faster than in the United States.

That's the premise behind the Impressionist exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art through March 5, 2006. The 53 works are from the highly regarded collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Organized by the MFA, the show sets out to illustrate how the French artists influenced their American counterparts. The artists and collectors of Boston, a city proud of its cultural sophistication, were fairly quick to accept the new art movement.

For example, New England artists formed The Ten American Painters, a group devoted to Impressionism.

One of group's leading lights was Julian Alden Weir, who had complained of suffering a raging headache on visiting an early Impressionist show in Paris. "A Chamber of Horrors," he harrumphed. Now he was happily wielding the torture devices.

The Norton exhibition takes in the long view of Impressionism, including works by non-Impressionists such as Jean-Francois Millet, J.B.C Corot, or the Barbizon landscape painter Narcisse de La Pena.

The Impressionists admired the Barbizonians for their dedication to painting "en plain aire" - that is, out of doors.

The old favorites are all here, however, with proto-Impressionist Claude Monet represented by no less than 12 paintings, including one of his famous water lily paintings from late in his career. Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley - the Impressionist "Murderer's Row" - are all on hand.

The American team boasts the likes of John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, Lila Cabot Perry and Dennis Miller Bunker, a real talent who died too young at age 30.

It's a tad ironic that Impressionism has become so popular that we tend to stop looking at the paintings since we think we know all their secrets. Familiarity breeds a kind of blindness. Is there any way around this?

"It's hard to think about these paintings anew, and they certainly don't have the shock value they once did," said Erica Hirshler, a senior curator at the MFA. She suggested that visitors keep in mind that these were once very contemporary pictures, and to think about how baffling our own art of the last five or 10 years can be.

"Around 1880, no one knew that Impressionism was going to take the world by storm," she said. "If people can keep this in mind, they can see that the Impressionists were engaged in the same kind of risk-taking as our own contemporary artists."

Jonathan Stuhlman, the Norton's curator of American Art, suggested visitors try to imagine themselves as American artists charged with buying one or two paintings to send back to their patrons in Boston.

"We all play the game of which picture would you want to take home with you," he said. "In this case, the idea of serving as a conduit for taste back home may make visitors look much harder at the works in front of them."

Hirshler pointed out how quickly an art movement that began as a rebellion against the status quo became a kind of official art style in the United States.

"The Impressionists are of a younger generation, and every generation wants to do something different," she said. Travel to Europe became easier after the Civil War, and young American artists hastened to Paris to study and devour a more "cosmopolitan" approach to art-making, she added.

"The academic tradition was incredibly strong [in France], but it wasn't as strong in this country," she added. "There wasn't one national school, no sanctioned art style that the government promoted. American artists were open to new things.

"What is interesting to me, however, is that while the Americans adopted Impressionism, many became leading figures in American academic circles. They were at the nation's art schools.

They serve as judges for juried exhibitions. What happens is that Impressionism .?.?. becomes a conservative style in its turn."

What is that French saying again? "The more things change .?.?.


Gary Schwan writes for the Palm Beach Post. E-mail:

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