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Perhaps you have wondered what transpired in the art world to bring impressionist posters to the dorm walls of college women everywhere. The answer may lie in the current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

A strict teleological interpretation of Impressionism leads us to understand this period as a natural progression toward modern, less purely realistic artistic expression. The eighty paintings and seventy works of graphic art in “Impressions of Light”, all taken from the museum’s permanent collection, have been arranged to logically illustrate this side of Impressionist landscape painting.

The stylistic evolution from classical realism through the Barbizon School to Monet’s famous water lillies is clearly portrayed. (But we want to leave the telling of that story to the catalogue writers.)

As we roamed the gallery floor, we discussed a more intriguing question about the collection: what historical themes or events were behind such powerful changes in the artistic rendering of nature in late 19th century Europe? We thought about how the following elements may have changed artistic interpretation of reality and the forms of landscape painting.

Photography: We were immediately struck by the presence of some great early photographs. The 1860’s saw the debut of photography as art form, and it is easy to contend that elements of Impressionistic landscape painting grew out of a reaction to this new medium. Realism was now in the hands of photographers, freeing painters (or inclining them, for want of differentiation) to experiment with more personal reflections on their subjects. Painters, in contrast, could try to capture the aesthetic and emotional subjectivity of natural observation. A blurring of brush strokes could be used to capture how light, scenery and the viewer’s eye interact to create “impressions” of landscapes, not purley documentary images.

In an instant, photography captured light in the riveting detail that once took a master painter years to perfect. Critics initially dismissed photography as an art form. Yet, as it rose in prestige, painters (ah, we are all subject to the laws of competition) sought to capture everything about light that the photographer could not: shimmering luminescence, vibrant color, a mountain from all sides.

Man in Nature: The Impressionists were at the forefront of a movement to redefine “landscape” painting. This collection shows a transition from classical themes and scenes devoid of everyday humanity to more intimate images of men and women in their familiar, often very simple surroundings. Many of Corot’s most compelling “landscapes” are really snapshots of country life, reflections on how man and nature interact.

Decades earlier, these images would have been poorly received but during the mid-1800’s there appears to be widespread consideration of this human interplay. Some have suggested that the proliferation of technology (trains, photography, growing industry, etc…) had spurred broader reflection on man’s position in the world. We see this as an element of works in this collection, often with a hint of nostalgia for simpler times.

Some historians have also noted that the spread of train travel and Impressionism came during the same period, contending that artists’ views of the world changed once man saw nature “flying by” at 20 miles an hour. This visual blurring of the natural world is apparent, but in practice it may have opened our eyes more to the world in which we live.

Light as Story Teller: Given the title of the exhibition, “Impressions of Light”, it is no surprise that the use of light plays an important role in the works of this period. The most interesting aspect is the way light is manipulated to create new “realities.” Gustave Le Gray created two photographs at the same time but exposed them differently to produce very different images. One shows a bright day with sun reflecting off the ocean, the other portrays a gloomier day with little sun and ominous clouds- a dichotomy of impressions possible solely through the photographic medium with variance in exposure. Light became the primary focus of many works during this period, in painting, photography and even print making.

Take a few hours to check out this exhibition, but be sure not to rush by the “lesser” images. We all know what a Monet looks like, but some of the smaller studies, prints and very early photographs are even more ‘impressive’, especially considering their effect on the long-term trajectory of artistic expression.

Few movements have so profoundly affected future artistic exploration as Impressionism. This show helps answer why we all happily hang those bright and blurry landscapes next to Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers. Enjoy the walk through history.

January 27, 2003
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