From Paris: A Taste for impressionism at London’s Royal Academy currently houses a selection of paintings from the prestigious Sterling and Francine Clark collection, displayed in the elegance of the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy. The collection exhibits the favourites of Impressionism such as Degas, Monet and Renoir, and displays their work amongst other lesser celebrated artists like Morisot, one of the few female artists from the movement.
Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956), born into a wealthy American family and a civil engineer by trade, founded the collection soon after he decided to move to Paris from New York in 1910. It was there that he also came to meet his future wife, an actress by the name of Francine Clary, with whom he proceeded to collect an impressive collection of nineteenth century French art that would later be permanently displayed in a gallery in Williamstown, Massachusetts. This purpose-built gallery is currently undergoing renovation works, and it is for this reason that the Clark collection is touring Europe, gracing us with its presence in London’s Royal Academy.
The exhibition is introduced by selection of fine still life paintings, a highlight of which being Moss Roses in a Vase by Manet which stands out beautifully amongst the other pieces in the room with its contrast between the vibrant pinks of the roses and the duller greys and beiges of the background. This piece brings forward to the audience another common component to many Impressionist paintings, water; glisteningly clear through a glass household vase. The painting of still life became increasingly popular as a departure from traditional historic painting when an emerging art market for the middle classes emerged. Commissioned portraiture with its idealistic figures was a theme associated with the upper classes, and interest of the general public soon swayed to a more accurate representation of real life. It was through still-life that Impressionist artists were able to make a living, retaining the ability to experiment with new techniques whilst being able to fund their own artistic careers.
The show progresses to display Impressionist landscapes, growing in popularity at the time due to better accessibility of travel as a result of the completion of the French national railway in 1850. What is most impressive about the scenes painted, particularly by Pissarro in The River Oise near Pontoise, is their inclusion of not only beautiful natural landscapes but also the urban infrastructure that was rapidly being introduced all over France. These factories and apartment blocks are not demonised in the paintings, nor do they come across as an interruption to their peaceful surroundings. They are merely commented on, perhaps a reflection on positive public opinion towards progressive industrialisation. Pissarro himself lived opposite the depicted factory, and this is one of four paintings that he did of it.
At around the same time that nature tourism was becoming more prominent in the French countryside, holidaying at the coasts also grew in popularity. Monet himself was particularly fond of the Normandy coast, and is reported to have completed over fifty landscapes of that area alone between October and December of 1855. Traditionally seascapes highlighted the dangers of the sea, the storms and shipwrecks, but as is demonstrated by Monet’s The Cliffs at Étretat, Impressionists did anything but. . Morning sunlight dances on the rocks and reflects onto the water a stripe of glowing pink. The only evidence of human involvement is a rowing boat and a collection of sailboats in the distance, other than that nothing but pure serenity. When walking away from the painting on to the next room, look back and find that the water even seems to glitter.
Moving on to portraiture, the exhibition chooses to highlight the stark differences in the styles of painting human figures during 19th century. It contrasts the fairly classical, idealistic style of William-Adolphe Bouguereau with the more modern and realistic techniques of artists like Berthe Morisot, one of the few female members of the movement and certainly an important one. Morisot, whilst establishing herself as a painter and exhibiting regularly, had to balance her work alongside fulfilling her role as a housewife and mother. She did this through studying members of friends and family, in settings such as the household and gardens. The Bath could be considered an example of this, showing a young woman preparing her hair after getting dressed and staring right out of the canvas whilst she does so, almost aware that her intimate moment is being interrupted. She is unprepared, imperfect, but she is a very realistic reflection of the day to day lives of ordinary people. She is a great reflection of what Impressionism aimed to achieve.
And that is exactly what the Clark collection has achieved as well. The selection of paintings is nothing radical, but it does educate and inform the viewer of the Impressionist movement and why exactly it remains so well-loved. Alongside this, the exhibition provides an art history class in itself, allowing an understanding of the wider context of the pieces and the other artistic styles that Impressionists would have been competing against. In the last few weeks of the exhibition, I would certainly recommend the Royal Academy as worthy of a visit this summer.
Words: Paniz Gederi ***1/2 Stars