Wednesday, June 17, 2015

“Monet and the Birth of Impressionism” at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum

From 11 March to 28 June 2015, Frankfurt’s Städel Museum is presenting a major exhibition on “Monet and the Birth of Impressionism”.

One hundred masterworks from the world’s most prominent painting collections will shed light on the beginnings of the Impressionist movement in the years from the early 1860s to 1880. World-famous loans will be on view, for example

Monet’s La Grenouillère (1869) from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art,

his Boulevard des Capucines (1873) from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City,

and The Luncheon: decorative panel (ca. 1873)

 and Camille on Her Deathbed (1879),

both from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The exhibition, which will be one of the highlights of the ¨200 Years Städel¨ anniversary programme, inquires into how Impressionism came about and the extent to which this approach to painting manifests contemporary visual experience. In addition to some fifty paintings by Claude Monet, works by numerous other Impressionists will also be on display, including important examples by Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. The anniversary exhibition bears a direct connection to the history of the Städel Museum’s own holdings: as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, then director Georg Swarzenski (1876–1957) came out passionately in favour of acquiring French painting ‒ which now represents one of the chief focuses of the museum’s collection.

In conjunction with the show, a catalogue is being published by Prestel Verlag in German and English. In addition to numerous essays, it will present the results of in-depth technological examinations of all the Impressionist works in the Städel holdings, carried out in preparation for the exhibition. An audio guide of the show recorded by actress Diane Kruger will also be available. The free Digitorial moreover offers interested visitors a means of acquainting themselves with the exhibition contents before coming to the museum (

“Works from the early days of Impressionism are rare and precious. All the more delighted are we that we have been able to realize such a complex and spectacular special exhibition as a prelude to our anniversary year, and have the opportunity to present loans from all over the world side by side with central works from the Städel collection. The exhibition and research project will undoubtedly be yet another highlight in the Städel’s two-hundred-year history”, comments Max Hollein, the director of the Städel Museum.

Taking as its point of departure Claude Monet’s painting The Luncheon (1868/69) ‒ a key work of early Impressionism that the Städel is fortunate enough to have in its holdings ‒ and the museum’s superb collection of early Impressionist works by Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley and Paul Cézanne, the exhibition will show how the Impressionists found their way to the dissolution and dematerialization of their pictorial motifs. From a multifaceted perspective, the visitors will learn about the various conditions that led to the birth of Impressionism and the radical change that came about in the relationship between pictorial content and form in the paintings produced by this important movement. Impressionism challenged the visual habits of the time in a completely new way ‒ and met with a wide variety of responses, as is evidenced by contemporary caricatures to be presented alongside works of Impressionist painting and photography.

“Our show revolves around the beginnings of the Impressionist movement. The Städel collection provides a foundation upon which we can ask how it was possible for Impressionism to emerge within just a few years. This exhibition focuses on the development of Impressionism from its inception to 1880”, remarks curator Felix Krämer, the head of the collection of modern art at the Städel Museum.

The nineteenth century was a time of upheavals and a wide variety of developments all taking place at the same time ‒ developments that also left their mark on the paintings of the Impressionists. Increasing industrialization brought about a change in the relationship between man and nature, but also that between work and leisure time. Technical progress led to a general acceleration of life. The visual experience of the big city and the spread of new media such as photography also had a decisive impact on the works of the period’s artists. The main protagonist and continual point of reference in the exhibition is Claude Monet. Among the artists of his time, Monet played a pioneering role in the growing popularity of open-air painting. In his œuvre, the formal innovations of Impressionism ‒ the clearly recognizable brushstroke and the rapid, sketchy painting style ‒ are particularly prominent. And his work also exemplifies another phenomenon that applies to the art of the Impressionists in general: they increasingly abandoned large-scale figural compositions in favour of smaller landscape scenes.

A circular tour of the exhibition

Part I of the exhibition

Arranged in chronological order, the presentation spreads out on both floors of the exhibition annex. A prologue in the first room on the ground floor is dedicated to the artists whom the Impressionists looked to as examples, such as the representatives of the “School of Barbizon” in whose work the predilection for landscape scenes, the tendency towards a sketchy manner of painting and the departure from academic tradition are all manifest. Here key compositions by Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Eugène Boudin and Johan Barthold Jongkind are on view.

After the prologue, the first main section of the show retraces the development of early Impressionist art in the period from 1864 to approximately 1870/71. It begins with a selection of paintings executed in the Forest of Fontainebleau. This is where the members of the “Barbizon School” worked on their open-air studies. Following in the footsteps of the painters they admired, Monet and his artist friends Frédéric Bazille, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley also visited the Fontainebleau woods to paint. This section of the show is flanked by a photo gallery devoted to the theme of nature in the photography of the period, and shedding light on the concurrence of painting and photography activities in the Forest of Fontainebleau.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Paris transformed from a city still shaped by medieval structures to a modern metropolis characterized by large squares and wide boulevards and considered very progressive. Monet also devoted himself to the motif of the public urban space in these years. His first endeavours to come to terms with the theme of the city are already perceivable in the following room of the show. Here the significance of Édouard Manet for Monet also becomes evident. At the time, Manet was regarded as the major talent of the avant-garde, and younger artists looked to him for orientation.

The exhibition features Manet’s large-scale painting

The Universal Exhibition of Paris 1867 (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo). Yet Monet was also concerned with depicting the urban realm:  

The Quai du Louvre of 1867 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague) shows the view from the balcony of the famous museum: it was not the Old Masters in the Louvre galleries that interested him, but the view of the everyday present outside. At the same time, he and his colleagues continued to paint landscapes and seascapes, several of which are likewise on view in this room.

The rear section of the ground floor concentrates on the years from 1868 to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. The key work here is the painting  


The Luncheon (1868/69) belonging to the Städel (above). The depiction of the home of a couple without a marriage licence and with an illegitimate child was a deliberate provocation and a critique on prevailing conventions. It was moreover the first time an artist had represented a private interior on such a large scale. Measuring 2.31 x 1.51 metres, the work was refused by the Salon jury, as was the depiction of La Grenouillère (1869) Monet had likewise submitted.

This rejection led to the artist’s break with the Paris Salon and a radical reorientation in his art: The Luncheon is the last of his large-scale figural paintings and marks his departure from Manet as an artistic reference. The fact that Monet presented this painting at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, when it was already five years old, testifies to the significance it nevertheless held for him. It was the largest work in the 1874 show. Scenes of the Franco-Prussian War are not to be found in the Impressionist paintings of this period. Most of the works were executed in exile, among them Monet’s Dutch landscape views. This section is enhanced by a photo gallery shedding light on the discrepancy between the political situation and the cheerful Impressionist pictorial motifs of these years.

Part II of the exhibition

The second part of the exhibition follows the further development of Monet’s œuvre and those of other Impressionists from 1872 to 1880 ‒ i.e. to the phase in which the subordination of the pictorial subject to atmospheric phenomena reached a climax. Upon entering the suite of galleries on the upper level, the beholder encounters another Monet painting:  


The Luncheon: Decorative Panel (above) dating from 1873 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), with which the artist reacted to his Frankfurt Luncheon. The work aptly demonstrates the shift of interest that had come about in his art: the focus was no longer on the human being and the interior but on nature and atmosphere. The dark shades of the predecessor painting make way for flickering dabs of paint applied to the canvas unmixed. Monet now concentrated primarily on reproducing light and colour and conveying a certain mood. In these paintings the visitor witnesses the increasing dissolution of form that took place in this phase of Impressionism. Monet presented this work along with the depiction of La Grenouillère at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876.

The painting The Boulevard des Capucines of 1873 (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City) (above) on display in this room is representative of Monet’s depictions of Paris. The pedestrians on the street have been recorded sketchily, with rapid brushstrokes, as an anonymous mass. Here the artist has masterfully captured the constant state of unrest and motion in the city with painterly means, and it is a work that already met with great admiration in his lifetime. The subsequent section of the show features landscape depictions and leisure-time scenes of the years 1873 to 1878, works that address man’s changing relationship to nature.

As illustrated, for example, by Monet’s painting  

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Summer (Meadow at Bezons), 1874

Summer of 1874 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), the great outdoors gained importance in this period as a place of recreation and recuperation for the modern city dweller. In the main room on this floor, the focus is on the Parisian metropolis and motifs of urban life as depicted in paintings by Degas, Morisot, Renoir and others. In Monet’s railway station scenes the increasing dissolution of the scenery brought about by the sketchy, diffuse application of the paint is clearly evident.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Exterior of Saint-Lazare Station (The Signal), 1877

At the centre of his 1877 work Exterior of Saint-Lazare Station (The Signal) of 1877 (Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover), a large traffic signal blocks the view. The grounds of the railway behind it are blurred, and reminiscent of a landscape seen from a train window during fast travel on what was then a brand new means of transport. The steam of the engine also prevents us from taking in the entire scene. Obstructions to sight have thus been elevated to the status of pictorial motifs as the actual subject recedes ever further into the background. At the same time, the artist has assigned special importance to atmospheric qualities. This section is accompanied by a gallery showcasing contemporary caricatures on Impressionism. In the last room on the upper level, we see how the phenomenon of the pictorial subject’s disintegration has been taken to the farthest extreme and the intrinsic value of colour has come to the fore, for example in Monet’s painting  

Vétheuil in the Fog of 1879 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris).

Finally, an “epilogue” assembles a number of characteristic works of Monet’s late phase that serve as particularly good illustrations of the development to the nearly complete loss of the pictorial subject.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Rouen Cathedral: The Portal, Morning Effect, 1893-1894

 In the four paintings from the Rouen Cathedral series (Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; Museum Folkwang, Essen; Klassik Stiftung Weimar; private collection) executed in 1892‒94 and depictions of London bridges likewise dating from this period (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, private collection), no more than an inkling of the built structures has remained; they appear almost entirely immaterial. Instead, the representation of light and atmosphere dominates the compositions.

More works from the exhibition:
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Hôtel des Roches Noires, Trouville, 1870
Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1865
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Jar of Peaches, c. 1866
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Saint-Lazare Station, Arrival of the Normandy Train, 1877

Auguste Renoir (1894-1979), Woman with a Parasol in a Garden, 1875
Anonym (?), Montmartre, 1870
Amédée Charles Henri de Noé (1819-1879), Madame! Cela ne serait pas prudent. Retirez-vous!, 1877
Amédée Charles Henri de Noé (1819-1879), M. Manet liu-même, pris d´une crise de nerfs la vue de la peinture indépendante, 1879
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Orchestra Musicians, 1872
Antoine Chintreuil (1814-1873), Landscape with Sunlight and Rainclouds, 1870
Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Seine at Bougival in winter, 1872
Camille Pissarro (1831–1903), The Quai du Pothuis, Pontoise, 1868
Jules Andrieu (1838–1884), Ruins of the Paris Cummune, 1871. The Hôtel de Ville after Fire, 4th arrondissement, Paris, 1871