Written by Mallory Trainor, Intern with the City of Worcester’s Cultural Development Division, spring 2023
On March 30th, 2023, the Worcester Art Museum’s (WAM) newest exhibition, Frontiers of Impressionism, opened for a press preview. As an intern with the City of Worcester’s Cultural Development Division, I was graciously invited to explore the exhibit along with my colleagues a few days before its official open on April 1st.
Featuring over 30 impressionist artists, Frontiers of Impressionism traces the evolution of the artistic movement from its initial conception in Paris through its expansion across Europe and North America. The exhibit contains some of the most well-known artists of the impressionist era, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Additional notable artists highlighted in the gallery include Fransisco Oller y Cestero, whose work is shown for the first time outside his homeland of Puerto Rico.
The impressionist movement was considered incredibly radical at its time as it dramatically departed from established artistic standards. Impressionist artists rejected the strict expectations imposed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the premier art institution of France in the mid-19th century. While the Académie favored formal, realistic, and often Biblically-inspired art, early impressionists enjoyed pastel colors, visible brush strokes, and loose interpretations of scenery. If you, like many, associate the impressionist movement with iconic pieces like Monet’s Water Lilies, you certainly won’t be disappointed. However, what I feel makes this exhibition truly unique is the focus on pieces that stray from the archetypal pastel pastures, with a diverse curation displaying how broad the impressionist genre could be. Frontiers of Impressionism, as the title of the exhibition nods to, is a celebration of the wide range of influences and artists that contributed to the genre, from North Africa to East Asia.
Before attending this exhibition, I thought I was knowledgeable about impressionist movement, yet my surprise upon seeing Pool in the Woods (George Inness, 1892) showed me just how limited my knowledge was. Inspired by the Hudson River School of Art and the tonalist movement, Inness uses impressionist techniques to produce a notably darker work than many of his contemporaries in the impressionist scene. I mean “darker” in the most literal sense of the word – the painting is steeped in shadows, with the distant moon serving as the only source of light. The result is gloomy, yet peaceful. Initially I thought it was too dark, too realistic for the impressionist movement, yet as I continued to move throughout the gallery, I realized just how incorrect my assumption was. For all its shadow, Pool in the Woods helped illuminate just how wide-reaching and stylistically-diverse the impressionist genre is.
Frontiers of Impressionism was curated to display the social, cultural, and historical backdrop of this influential art movement, providing context and clarity as to how impressionism evolved. One common theme I noticed is the significant role that the development of comprehensive railroad systems had on allowing impressionism to flourish. It may seem surprising to the 21st century viewer, as we now take for granted the ability to drive hundreds of miles in a day, but railroads allowed city dwellers to easily venture into the countryside for the first time in history. This newfound mobility was massively influential in expanding the purview of impressionist painters, as once remote villages became increasingly accessible as sources of inspiration. The desire to depict idyllic and peaceful landscapes was especially strong in the wake of industrialization, as cities were becoming increasingly crowded and polluted. Another way in which the exhibition was grounded in history was through the inclusion of paintings that were explicitly political, reflecting the wide variety of topics and themes that existed in the impressionist movement. While impressionism is often mischaracterized as an apolitical genre, the incorporation of Afro-Canadian painter Edward Mitchell Bannister’s 1890 painting Hay Gatherers displays how incorrect that assumption can be. Hay Gatherers, which depicts Black agricultural workers in a post-Reconstruction South, speaks to the ways in which this artistic approach was utilized in reflections on equity and injustice in a rapidly changing world.
Another theme of Frontiers of Impressionism, as implied by the title of the exhibition itself, is just how widespread the reach of the movement was. Often the popular understanding of the impressionist movement is deeply tied to France – both Paris, where many early impressionists originated, and rural villages such as Barbizon, where the Barbizon School of Painters emerged. However, impressionists took inspiration from countries as far away as Japan – many impressionist painters were noted as avid collectors of Japanese woodblock prints, and artist James McNeill Whistler was known for incorporating Japanese influences into his work. The WAM also pointed to the pitfalls of the newfound globalism of impressionists, in discussing the influences of orientalism and colonial legacy within the impressionist movement. The placards for many paintings did more than just describe the art on display – many worked in conversation with the piece to provide a nuanced understanding of the historical context that influenced impressionist paintings.
Frontiers of Impressionism also highlights Worcester’s long-standing connection to the movement. The exhibit features a portrait by John Singer Sargent that was painted in Worcester, back in 1890. Other hometown connections include the impressionist Edith Loring Getchell, who opened a studio in Worcester during the late 19th century. Her work was first featured in the WAM in 1908. The Worcester Art Museum was also the first American art museum to purchase a Monet painting when it acquired Water-Lilies in 1910. The inclusion of both impressionists around the globe and familiar Massachusetts landscapes displays the extensive reach and diversity of the impressionist movement, while grounding it through its local history.
Frontiers of Impressionism certainly deserves a visit. The exhibition includes a fun and creative interactive element that allows visitors to create their own impressionist works while surrounded by some of the most famous pieces of the movement. The gallery will be on display at the Worcester Art Museum from April 1st to June 25th, 2023.