Art Markets: Impressionism’s lasting impact

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An art critic puzzled at the sight of Claude Monet’s Impression, “Sunrise” (Impression, soleil levant), coined the name “Impressionism” as a jeering insult. But the artists in the exhibition who so irked the critic eagerly embraced the term to describe their new approach to painting. Along with Monet, the 1874 exhibit in a Paris photography studio included works by men who would soon join the ranks of the world’s most famous artists, including Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas.

Along with several lesser-known painters, these artists slipped the bonds of naturalism while sojourning in the light-saturated air of the Seine estuary and beaches of the English Channel. Their canvases became more ethereal and fluid, registering impressions of light in subjective ways while also daring to paint the modern world. Before the Impressionists, few painters would have included a factory chimney or passing locomotive in their landscapes, as if such subjects were beneath the consideration of true art. By contrast, the Impressionists were determined to paint what they saw with their own eyes rather than the imagined worlds of mythology or history.

The impact that Impressionism had on artists continued throughout the 20th century and is still standard today. More often than not, landscapes feature dappled strokes of paint with an interplay of color and indiscriminate form, creating for the viewer an image that seems to take on more clarity with distance. The British portrait painter Lucian Freud (born 1922) recalls the brushstroke style of the American Impressionist painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), by applying imprecise strokes of paint onto the canvas, creating a similar luminous elegance. While not the same message, the style takes its cue from the Impressionist method. And that is perhaps one reason for the long-standing draw of Impressionism. While Freud falls primarily into the category of Expressionism, a movement that followed on the heels of Impressionism, components of the Expressionist design include a dabble of Impressionist technique. Art snobs acknowledge Impressionism as the beginning of the great art movements to come. Cubism, Modernism and a hundred “ism’s” in between, all emerged from the Impressionist concept.

In keeping with their groundbreaking legacy, the masters of Impressionism remain big ticket items of the spring and fall auction seasons. A Monet or Degas at an evening sale summons a gathering of collectors and brings in the bucks. Offered alongside the masters are the lesser-known Impressionists from the period whose names might not be known to the general public but whose work is sought after by the collector on a tighter budget.

Several female painters from the era stand out as examples of the less familiar names sought by collectors. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the only woman included in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and was shown again alongside Renoir, Degas, Pissarro and others in the seven exhibitions that followed. Born in France, she befriended artist Camille Corot (1796-1875), a principle painter of the Barbizon school. Under his tutelage she learned the plein air method and continued outdoor painting throughout her career. Also known for her serene studies of women, her daughter Julie was her favorite model. Her body of work includes drawings, pastels and oil paintings. Prices range at recent auction sales of $50,000 to $320,000 (hammer).

The mostly self-taught Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916) is relatively obscure but rubbed shoulders with the Impressionist masters and took advice from eminent painter Jean Ingre (1780-1867) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Admired by Edgar Degas, her work was shown in several Impressionist exhibits from 1879-1886. In 1894, the critic Gustov Gaffney described her as one of the grand dames of Impressionism, alongside Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. Her relatively small body of work includes just over 100 oil paintings and some sketches, mostly of quiet domestic scenes. A range of auction sales include a Paris sale in 2008 for $9,700 (hammer) and $26,000 (hammer) in Cologne.

Among the early American Impressionists was Richard Emil Miller (1875-1943), a member of the “Giverny Group” of American painters who studied near the home of Claude Monet. Trained at the St. Louis School of Fine Art, he traveled to France in 1898 where he studied art and eventually taught a summer art class at Giverny. Returning to America around 1914, he taught at the Pasadena Stickney School of Art where his experienced hand was influential in California Impressionism. His works are mostly figurative studies, rendered in classic Impressionist style of light and contrast. A 2009 auction in New York brought $150,000 (hammer) for a lavish study of a young woman sewing.

William Merritt Chase (1848-1916) is perhaps the most well-known of the lesser-known American Impressionists. The Indiana-born artist led a wandering life, studying in New York, St. Louis, Munich and Venice before settling in New York in 1878. He opened an art studio and became known for his flamboyant style of dress, circle of fashionable friends and Impressionist paintings. Most enduringly, the Chase School of Art (founded in 1896) evolved into the prestigious Parsons School of Design. A prolific painter, he produced portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Sales at auction in 2010 include the Paris sale of a portrait, undated, bringing in $70,000 (hammer) and a still life (1905) which sold in New York for $15,000 (hammer).

By the end of the 19th century, Impressionism became a global style embraced from the U.S. to Russia; it would continue to inspire painters wary of more recent developments in modern art. Many obscure artists and weekend painters produced good work in the style and fine examples can be found in antique stores at modest prices. Among the general public, no style of modernism became as popular as Impressionism, whose images are recognizable and easily understood, even as they capture fugitive moments from the world around us. ?

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.


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