SINGAPORE: Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir – get ready to see works by some of the biggest names in art courtesy of the highly-anticipated Impressionist show at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS).
The exhibition Colours Of Impressionism: Masterpieces From The Musee d’Orsay opens on Nov 16 and features 67 artworks from the French museum, which is touted as having the most important collection of works from the influential art movement.
It will run parallel to Between Worlds, a show featuring Southeast Asian masters Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. Together, the shows comprise NGS’ twin-bill Century Of Light showcase of 19th century art.
While you may be familiar with these big names, just how much do you really know about Impressionism and the artists that gave you those wonderful waterlily paintings and luminous landscapes?
Before the museum’s doors open on Thursday, here’s a quick cheat sheet to get you reacquainted with Monet and the rest.
1. IT WAS AN OLD BOY’S CLUB
Impressionism may have been a forward-thinking art movement but the 19th century was still a pretty conservative time when a huge majority of the artists were men.
“It was more difficult for women to be artists at that time because it was considered a male profession. It only began to change at the end of the century,” said Musee d’Orsay curator Paul Perrin, who pointed out that most art schools were off limits to women, who weren’t allowed to draw or paint nudes.
But there were exceptions to the rule, such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. The NGS show features three paintings by the latter.
“She was more independent than other women and tried to do everything to exhibit and paint outdoors like all the other painters, which was more difficult for her to do.”
2. BLACK WAS THE NEW BLACK
The Impressionists may be known for obsessing over light and colour, but it actually all started in darkness, quite literally.
During the 1850s, right before the new movement kicked off, the likes of Manet and Courbet were the early rebels who desired a shift from the traditional historical and romantic paintings to a grittier style that portrayed the burgeoning modern world, which was literally pretty dark. Black was then incorporated into their palettes.
But just a couple of decades later, the newer artists also grew tired of black. They still continued to paint the reality around them but this time in fresher, brighter colours.
3. THEY WERE THE OUTDOOR TYPE
If their predecessors liked to paint indoors, the Impressionists spent a lot of time outdoors painting en plein air.
Monet, for instance, loved to paint snowy landscapes (he did 140 of these throughout his life) and the artists would get mocked for this – there would be caricatures in publications of them freezing out in the open while trying to capture the scenery, said Perrin.
But there was, of course, a method to the madness. After all, they wanted to capture sunlight as it hit their subjects and the only way to do that was to go out and paint in real time.
One result was the, well, impression that the works were seemingly done very quickly, which one can see in just how obvious their brushstrokes were. That feeling of being instantaneous was an integral part of what the artists were doing.
4. THEY LOVED THEIR SCIENCE
The Impressionists were what we would like to now call “early adopters”. The 19th century was a wild period full of scientific innovation – for one, the oil paint tubes were invented around this time, which allowed the artists to actually paint outdoors.
There were also progress made in terms of theories surrounding optics, and new colour pigments were being invented by scientists at that time, both of which were perfect for this group of creative minds who wanted to see things in a fresh light.
New, nuanced colours like emerald green and chromium yellow expanded their palettes, and discoveries in how people see things led to Neo-Impressionist movements like pointillism, which was championed by the likes of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
So while they were artists, they were also nerds. “They were making a statement: ‘I’m going to put some science in the art,’” said Perrin.
5. THEY DID ‘FILTERS’ WAY BEFORE INSTAGRAM CAME ALONG
It might be artistic sacrilege to compare what these artists did to what people today are doing with their photographs on social media, but it might not be that big of a stretch since the NGS exhibit reveals the Impressionists’ journey through the use of colours.
Think about it: What’s the difference between using Crema, Valencia or Hefe on instaphotos and the artists’ non-realistic interpretation of things they were painting?
“The use of filters today is a bit like saying ‘I can customise my reality’. In a sense, it’s a bit like (the artists) putting something of themselves in a painting they’re doing – ‘I can put more blue, more red, a new effect of light’. Something to say it’s their vision and not anyone else’s,” said Perrin.
That said, photography – which was in black and white at the time – was something Impressionists didn’t consider as true art, he added. “They were going away from it and saying they can do more subjective and personal view of things.”