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Making an Impression
January/February 2010

Domestic harmony: Madame Manet at the piano 

In April 1874, a group of young French artists shunned by the art establishment held an exhibition in the former studio of the photographer Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The 165 pictures on display caused a furore, the artists were derisively labelled the "Impressionists" and the exhibition became the most famous show in the history of art. 

The first Impressionist exhibition has subsequently been heralded as marking the birth of modern art. It is a view that still holds sway though, of course, things are not that straightforward. Modern art as we now understand it is a 20th-century invention: the art of the 19th century was an organic creature, always growing out of what came before. For all their radicalism, that is true of Monet, Cézanne, Degas et al too.

Nevertheless, the Impressionists have come to be defined for what they were not — smooth, classically-inspired Salon painters — as much as what they were. It is, however, an alternative view that is put forward in Impressionism: A Modern Renaissance (January 14-April 22), at the handsome new galleries of the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid's museum heartland. This exhibition suggests that the work of the Impressionists had more in common with that of their contemporaries than has usually been acknowledged, indeed that they were just one of many interlinked currents in late 19th-century art. 

Among the 90 paintings on show are ten Manets, nine Monets and a clutch of pictures by Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro and Courbet — an extraordinarily rich crop, the cream of the Musée d'Orsay in fact, on loan while that museum is being refurbished.

In order to make its case, the official end of the artistic spectrum is also on display in the form of once-celebrated Salon favourites such as Bouguereau and Meissonier (in the 1870s, the richest painter in France and the man Delacroix called "the incontestable master of our epoch"). Other outsider strands are present too, such as the Realists Courbet and Millet and the Symbolists Redon and Moreau. It's a neat way of demonstrating that the us-against-them model of Impressionism is too reductionist by far.

Many of these clusters of artists shared similar themes and inspirations. There are, for instance, examples of women in domestic settings painted by Manet (Madame Manet au piano, 1868), Whistler (Arrangement in grey and black — "Whistler's Mother", 1871), Fantin-Latour (Victoria Dubourg, 1873): one subject and three diverse styles. Meissonier's Siege of Paris, 1884, and Doré's L'énigme, 1871, are two different interpretations of the disgrace of the Franco-Prussian war. Sunlight, clouds and fields were the stuff not just of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir but of Jean François Millet too. And so on.

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