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Reexamining Link between Rise of Photography and Impressionism

The U-M Museum of Art.

Some claim there is little left to know about Impressionism, the iconic 19th-century art movement with distinctively dreamy canvasses that continue to shape contemporary sensibilities.

Yet the lasting impact of the style that integrates a reverence for light, visible brush strokes and open composition might be more in tune with contemporary realities than has been realized, according to Carole McNamara, senior curator of Western art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

She began with the simple question: What was the stylistic inspiration for James McNeill Whistler’s “Sea and Rain,” a seminal Impressionist painting in UMMA’s collection. Rather than follow a narrow path, McNamara discovered how artists were responding to the interplay of cultural influences coalescing in mid-19th-century along the Normandy coast in France, where Whistler painted.

Since that initial inquiry, McNamara has spent nearly a decade assembling a case to reevaluate the impact of photography on the movement’s greatest artists, including Whistler, Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

“The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850-1874,” curated by McNamara, presents vivid juxtapositions of the hauntingly beautiful mid-19th century photography of Gustave Le Gray,Henri Le Secq, and other lesser-known artists alongside works of Impressionist masters in a thoughtful evocation of the roots of the popular movement.

After gazing at Monet’s or Courbet’s work, it’s a short step to grasp how photographers’ quest to “arrest motion” became aesthetically valid and how instantaneity captured their imagination, said McNamara.

“Along with the major inventions of the day –train, telegraph and photography – artists were dealing with how the whole notion of time was upended,” she said. “Many of these artists saw how a photograph was an immediate way to capture motion.”

McNamara traced the American-born Whistler’s trip to France’s Normandy coast, where he and fellow artist Courbet traveled in a region that became one of the greatest tourists’ attractions in the world.  In contrast to Courbet’s broad-stroke paintings, Whistler was moving away from realism, experimenting with a gossamer-like style and chromatically narrow palette.  For McNamara, the influence of photography on Whistler was underestimated.

In the years following the invention of photography in 1839, a rigorous discussion commenced about whether “taking pictures” was a fine art, or simply mechanical documentation. McNamara points to the calm beauty of Le Gray’s “The French Fleet, Cherbourg” (1858), an albumen print, as evidence the preeminent photographers of the day were unquestionably first-rate artists.

The symbiotic relationship between photography and painting is noteworthy when considering the many visual images appropriated by contemporary artists. What is an original vision – or an authentic image – in the digital age is getting more difficult to discern.

“’The Lens of Impressionism’ is clearly an exhibition that draws on history, but raises contemporary issues,” said McNamara. “With the Internet and the proliferation of images in our culture, questions arise about originality. These were the same issues facing Impressionist artists working at a time when  photography was influencing how they looked at the world.”

Organized by UMMA, “The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850–1874” will be on view in Ann Arbor October 10, 2009 through January 3, 2010 and will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010.

NOTE: This exhibition is made possible in part by the Florence Gould Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the University of Michigan Health System, Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Research, School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the Center for European Studies-European Union Center, and Department of History of Art, Masco Corporation, Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, the University of Michigan Credit Union, and the family of Dr. Raymond F. Cunningham in his memory. “The Lens of Impressionism” would not have been possible without the generosity and cooperation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and features exceptional loans from the BnF and the Musée d’Orsay. Following its showing in Ann Arbor, the exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art.

UMMA HISTORY: In March 2009, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) opened a landmark 53,000-square-foot expansion, named the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing for its lead benefactors, and a major restoration of its historic, 41,000-square-foot home, Alumni Memorial Hall.

Designed by principal architect Brad Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works Architecture, the $41.9 million transformation not only more than doubled the space available for collections display, temporary exhibitions, programs and educational exploration, but also fulfilled the Museum’s mission to offer a meeting place for the arts, bridging visual art and contemporary culture, scholarship and accessibility, tradition and innovation.

UMMA’s near universal collections of more than 18,000 works of art span Western, Asian, and African traditions.