Radicals at work: New exhibit at The Clark turns around common thinking about the Impressionists

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WILLIAMSTOWN — It's a common misconception the artists of the Impressionist movement created their works only with brushstrokes of oil on canvas.

A survey of the works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro hanging on museum walls around the world would suggest just that. But an examination of the eight Impressionist exhibitions held in Paris between 1874 and 1886 suggest something completely different, as only half the work on display was produced in oils.

The other half comprised prints and drawings made by the artists, who experimented with different types of printmaking and papers, as well as pastels, inks, chalk and charcoal.

Those works, along with those of a few artists who either influenced the Impressionists or were influenced by them, are included in a new exhibit, "The Impressionist Line: From Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec," opening at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute on Sunday.

"Most of the media they were working with was new media," curatorial assistant Kristie Couser said as the finishing touches were being applied to the exhibition space. "These artists just weren't making radical images, they were radical in what they were making them with as well."

The show is a reworking of sorts of a previous show of the same name that was held at The Frick in 2013.

"I always wanted to reprise the show here," Jay A. Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. "It took a couple of years to do it. I wanted to hold a smaller exhibition here. I also wanted to show works that didn't travel or couldn't travel to The Frick. It's incredible that all the works in the show come from our vault."

A total of 39 works on paper were drawn out of the Clark's collection of some 6,000 works on paper for the show, which traces artistic influence the graphic arts on the Impressionist artists beginning with a red-chalk drawing, "Cows at Watering Hole," by Charles-Francois Daubigny, a Barbizon School artist who mentored Monet, Pissarro and their colleague Berthe Morisot.

Clark is quick to point out that while some of the charcoal and chalk drawings eventually served as studies for larger oil paintings, the majority of the drawings exist independent of the artists' painted works. And that some are even as important or more important than the more famous oil paintings when it comes to studying the development of an artist's style.

"Works on paper are not exhibited a lot," she said. "In part, it's because we need to take care of these objects. The materials they're made with can't be exposed [to light and other environmental factors] for too long."

Through "The Impressionist Line," the museum is challenging both the public's perception of Impressionism and of the artists themselves.

Cassatt, an American artist known for her oil paintings of women and children in everyday scenes, was also a master printmaker.

Her soft-ground etching, " In the Opera Box (No. 3)," included in the show, was created for an art journal "Le Jour et la Nuit (Day and Night)," conceived by Degas after the first Impressionist exhibition. The journal, which was to be illustrated by the participating artists, was never published.

"Art journals became a popular way for artists to get their work in the hands of the emerging middle class," Couser said. "Artists would publish journals, either of their own works or with a group of artists. It was a way for the middle class to have a collection."

Cassatt was one of four women to be included in the Impressionist exhibits. Morisot, Eva Gonzales and Marie Bracquemond also exhibited their works, although Cassatt is the one most associated with the movement. The women are not the only artists who fail to be recognized as part of the movement.

"The artists who only made prints or drawings are rarely shown with the artists who produced oil paintings," Couser said.

Felix Bracquemond, who was included in the fourth installment, was a champion of the etching revival in France and taught bot Degas and Manet the artform.

Degas would produce numerous prints of his dancers using a style of printing called the monotype, which produces a single quality print.

"Sometimes, he would make a second print and use it as an underdrawing for a pastel," Clark said.

Degas' use of the monotype can be seen in "Three Ballet Dancers," which he created by applying ink to copper plate. He then etched the scene in the ink by removing it with paintbrushes, fingertips or cloth before covering it with a sheet of paper and running it through a press.

Art dealers like Ambrose Vollard recognized the value of prints and drawings and commissioned artists like Renoir to create color lithographs, which could be reproduced in multiples and sold.

Vollard commissioned Renoir to create the large scale lithograph, "Pinning the Hat: Second Plate."

"At that time, Renoir was very interested in making paste transfers from lithograph plates," Clark said.

The willingness of the Impressionist artists to explore and experiment with a variety of new paper types, media and printmaking would lead to artists like Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec willingly recreating their works with zincography and lithographs.

Gauguin created a portfolio of prints, "Volpini Suite," on bright yellow paper at the urging of art dealer Theo van Gogh, a brother of Vincent van Gogh.

"It's a very startling yellow paper," Clark said of five prints from the Volpini Suite that are on display. "Each is connected to an extant oil painting. It was a way for his art dealer to publicize his recent work."

His Tahitian woodcut prints, which blend Tahitian imagery with Christian icons, are stark and almost crude in comparison to Pissarro's soft pastel city scene, " Boulevard Rochechouart," and Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge lithographs hanging nearby.

"Prints and drawings allowed these artists to travel in completely different circles," Clark said. "Toulouse-Lautrec wasn't an Impressionist, but he was influenced by them and their works. He understood the value of the media. He pasted his own prints on the walls of the city."

Accessibility to these little-seen prints and drawings of the Impressionist masters is perhaps the greatest allure of the show.

"Oil paintings are so accessible," Clark said of the challenge of exhibiting prints. "Printmaking is very confusing and can be complicated. Drawings are a little different. Everyone, at some point in their life, has drawn a picture, doodled during a meeting. It's very universal and understandable. People can come to this show not knowing anything about the printmaking process and enjoy it."

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com, @BE_DigitalJen or 413-496-6229. 


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