Artistic movements come in waves. They ripple across oceans and crash into unexpected places with dazzling displays of color and light.
And as artistic movements go, Impressionism was a tsunami.
A new Telfair Museums exhibit explores how this wave washed onto American shores from the salons of France.
“Monet and American Impressionism,” on view through January 24th at the Jepson Center for the Arts, brings to the Hostess City for the first time works by Claude Monet.
And it sheds new light on a particular strength of Telfair Museums, American Impressionism.
In this 41 minute program, Telfair Museums’ Curator of Fine Arts and Exhibitions, Courtney McNeil, talks about how we arrived at this exhibit – both artistically and institutionally.
“These artists were different in many ways, they were similar in many ways,” McNeil says. “But they all shared a passion for their work and an interest in sincerely engaging with changing the world around them.”
McNeil begins by describing just how radical the Impressionists once were considered.
We might think of their style as conservative today.
But their emphasis on bright colors, visible brush strokes, open air compositions and ordinary subject matters marked a clean break with the art that came before it.
The critics were not impressed at first.
“One artist in particular, J. Alden Weir, viewed one of the early Impressionist shows in 1877 and wrote a letter home to his family saying, ‘I never in my life saw more horrible things. It was worse than a chamber of horrors,’” McNeil says.
But eventually, the art world, including Weir, warmed to Impressionism’s freedom, candidness and quickness.
The movement found American converts in artists like Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Frank Benson, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase and Frederick Carl Frieseke.
They painted Impressionist scenes in America’s great cities and in its vast countryside.
They formed their own art societies.
And their work came to be collected by great museums, like the Telfair, the oldest public art museum in the South.
“Impressionism holds a really special place in our institutional history,” McNeil says. “Not only are many of our most beloved paintings from our permanent collection American Impressionist works, but when you think about it, Impressionism was really the first modern, progressive style of painting to ever enter the Telfair’s collection.”
McNeil explains how one of the museum’s early curators, a well-regarded artist in his own right, Gary Melchers, brought Impressionist works into the museum’s collection.
In “Monet and American Impressionism,” Telfair Museums presents six of these beloved pieces in their Savannah home right next to four visiting Monet works – and next to other visiting works by artists in the same style.
This gives local viewers a fresh look at favorites they might have seen before, such as Childe Hassam’s “Avenue of the Allies,” painted after the victory in World War I.
McNeil compares the piece to Gary Melchers’ “Bryant Park at Twilight,” a 1906-1907 work painted in New York City.
“It’s illuminating to look at these two works together,” she says. “Melchers was actually good friends with Hassam. They were both students as very young men in Paris at the same time.”
The exhibit includes about 50 paintings and 20 prints.
It’s organized into five themes: “The Allure of Giverny,” “A Country Retreat,” “The Vibrance of Urbanism,” “The Comfort of Home” and “A Graphic Legacy.”
And judging by the response from its opening week, it’s the year’s biggest artistic hit in Savannah.
This talk had to be presented twice because so many people wanted to hear it.