Would any of us today reject art just because it was 'new' as the Paris and London of the 18th century rejected the work of the Impressionists?
Thank goodness, then, that the National Gallery opens 7 days a week to allow us to discover and rediscover art, including the art of the unfamiliar. Every visit reveals new things.
During a recent art walk I headed not to Inventing Impressionism: The man who sold a thousand Monets (see below) but to Room 43 and Monet: The Water Garden at Giverny.
Claude Monet built his water garden in order to study the way light changed over time on the surface of the water. This is The
Water-Lily Pond (1899).
Nearby is Monet’s earlier work celebrating water, The Petit Bras
of the Seine at Argenteuil (1872). Did anyone ever paint shimmer quite so well?
Camille Pissarro’s portrait of Paul Cézanne (1874) shows Cézanne bulky, bearded and bundled up against the cold. He was 35 years old and had not yet succeeded in his own eyes – although his tutors, including Pissarro, had no doubt that he would.
Paul Cézanne’s own self-portrait (about 1800–1) was painted 6 or 7 years later – an older man who seems to have lost weight (and hair) but whose thoughtful expression speaks of the intellectual effort applied to analyse the subjects he painted. Here he analyses the geometric planes of the human skull. He would soon use the same technique to paint his landscapes.
Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (about 1867–8) is startling to the eyes even today. Observe the rigour and formality with which the artist paints the scene. You can read the story behind the painting here.
The Execution of Maximilian was cut into sections soon after Manet painted it. Some pieces, including the figure of Maximilian himself (except, poignantly his hand, holding that of General Mejía, who, with General Miramón, also faced the firing squad), have disappeared. It was Edgar Degas who tracked down as many of the pieces as possible and with equal rigour patched them together onto a single canvas to give us the 193 x 284 cm painting we have today.
I ended my art walk with two female figures and one female artist. Whether the sitter in Manet’s Woman with a Cat (about 1880–2), the artist’s wife, is thinking of her needlework, her correspondence, or the fact that it’s high time she got dressed for dinner, we don't know. Any cat lover will recognize the accuracy with which the artist has captured the reluctance to politely but firmly dislodge the cat from her lap.
Berthe Morisot (married to Manet’s brother Eugène) painted Girl on a Divan (not pictured) around 1885. The painting is on loan from the Tate: it seems to me to epitomise what we take the word impressionism to mean, leaving an interpretive space that allows the viewer to enter. Paul Durand-Ruel bought 22 of her works.
The exhibition celebrating Durand-Ruel's work to support the emerging artists of his day is ticketed (see the Art Pass link below), and now has extended opening hours. It finishes at the National Gallery, on Sunday 31 May.
Photos: The National Gallery
The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, London WC2
Free Daily 10am–6pm
National Art Pass
Note: since some staff at the gallery are engaged in strike action, please check the latest news before visiting.