Stepping into Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, the smart, illuminating and inaugural show now on view in the Saint Louis Art Museum's new wing, one might be forgiven for expecting a pandering parade of serene pastoral canvases rendered in soft-focus pastels.
But don't be alarmed. While there are plenty of bucolic scenes on display, the show's curators, Simon Kelly and April Watson, are up to something much more ambitious. Namely, with its blend of rural, urban and industrial Impressionist landscapes, accompanied by a lush complement of early French photography, Impressionist France asserts that these images — by turns nostalgic and unflinchingly modern — were essential to the construction of a French national identity.
The show covers the years between 1850 and 1880, an era that saw the rise of nations in Europe, with the formal unification of Germany in 1871 and the creation of Italy in 1861. In France, by contrast, the regime of Napoléon III and the beginning of the Third Republic oversaw a period of vast urbanization, from Georges-Eugène Haussmann's massive reconfiguration of Paris — razing its cramped medieval neighborhoods to construct the wide, radiating boulevards of today — to the expansion of the country's railroad system, the onset of tourism and industrialization. Nevertheless, the majority of the population continued to live outside Paris, and the show argues that the visual depiction of the country's distinctive landscapes — from the Alps, to Paris, to the craggy shores of Normandy — played a crucial role in fabricating a sense of identity.
Organized in conjunction with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (Watson's home institution and where the show exhibited until earlier this year), Impressionist France makes its case in seven stages: "Paris and the Modern Cityscape," "Monuments" "Forests and Rivers," "Rural and Agricultural Life," "Railroads and Factories," "Mountains," and "Marine Views: Ports and Tourism." Combined, these seven divisions reveal the remarkable tensions that lie at the heart of Impressionist France: Namely the push-pull relationship between glorifying the modern wonders of mid-19th century France and a tendency to mythologize the natural landscape, a sort of cultural terroir. Meanwhile, the show's focus on early photography provides a revealing lens to view not only the creation of modern France, but also the birth of Impressionism — whose roots in the Barbizon school grew alongside the instantaneous moment, the impression, caught by the camera.
This clash between modernity and what came before is on full display in paintings like Édouard Manet's The Rue Mosnier with Flags, which depicts a newly built street during a national holiday. The street is festooned with French Tricolours, as off to the right a gentleman in a top hat strolls near ladies in bustles. In the left corner, however, an amputee in an ill-fitting smock hobbles by a pile of rubble — the leftovers of a newly built rail line.
The solemn tone of Manet's canvas contrasts mightily with Pierre-Auguste Renoir's The Grands Boulevards, a near archetypal celebration of modern Paris in the spring. The painting depicts one of Haussmann's recently constructed boulevards teeming with life as well-dressed Parisians stroll past gas lights and a horse-drawn carriage goes dashing by. It is an elegant vision of modern Paris with nary a peasant in sight.
These paintings of the modern city stand in stark relief to the photographs of Charles Marville, who, as the official photographe de la ville de Paris, documented many of the city's cramped and crumbling streets before they were lost to Haussmann's modernizing scheme. They are fascinating relics of a bygone world, made all the more ghostly for their lack of human figures.
Moving through the galleries, however, the tensions of Paris are given broader context, as Impressionist France explores the chateaus and Roman ruins of the region’s storied past. Meanwhile, the natural world is imbued with romantic potency in works like Gustave Doré’s Deer in a Pine Forest (Vosges), a massive canvas of thickly applied paint. The work depicts a dense forest filled with light and shadow. A stream trickles in the foreground, as Doré accentuates the landscape’s verdant density with an ephemeral light, which plays delicately off the woods’ hanging moss and sparkling water. Important for the show’s purposes, however, is the woodland’s locale: It is in Vosges, just outside the contested region of Alsace, which the country ceded to Germany in 1871.
Meanwhile, depictions of rural life have a strong presence in the works of painters like Jules Breton and Jean-Francois Millet, whose portrayals of an exalted French peasantry idealize rural life as authentic and virtuous, inoculated against the corrupting influences of the city. But the show’s organizers open a surprising window onto these works, displaying nearby a series of photographs commissioned by the Parisian publisher Adolphe Giraudon. Realizing there was a market for images that lionized this rustic ideal, Giraudon hired a photographer who dressed his models in peasant garb, producing a series of figure studies he later sold to painters – so much for authenticity.
There’s much more to see here, as artists like Claude Monet, Gustave Le Gray, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas explore the country’s multifaceted identity, revealing a nation transformed by industry while also luxuriating in powerful visions of an untrammeled natural world.
On balance, Impressionist France is not a collection of the school's greatest hits. But that is part of its mesmerizing power, revealing that Impressionism — so well known, so often relegated to the banality of the coffee mug — still has many secrets to disclose. We just need the right lens to reveal them.