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Celebrated Impressionist portraits from the Musée d'Orsay on view at the Kimbell
Edgar Degas, In a Café (Absinthe), 1875–76. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 27 in. (92 x 68.5 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

FORT WORTH, TX.- Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from the Musée d’Orsay will be one of the most spectacular loan exhibitions ever presented at the Kimbell Art Museum. Jointly organized by the Kimbell and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, it will include more than 70 superb examples of French painting and sculpture of the last half of the 19th century. The largest-ever loan of portraits from the collections of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, the exhibition will feature masterworks by the central figures in the Impressionist movement—notably Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Claude Monet—as well as renowned paintings by the artists who preceded them, such as Édouard Manet, and those who followed them, including Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.

“The Musée d’Orsay is the most important and extensive repository of Impressionist art in the world,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “This exhibition brings to our region, for the first time, some of the greatest works in that collection, including masterpieces by Manet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne.”

Impressionism is most often known as a revolutionary movement dedicated to the depiction of landscape in changing light and atmosphere, allied with a heroic struggle to defend what the poet Charles Baudelaire called “the heroism of modern life.” Though landscape and themes of modern life do constitute the majority of canvases by the Impressionists, Faces of Impressionism will show that portraiture also played an important role in their art. In fact, every major artist who first exhibited with the group in 1874, as well as those who joined thereafter, made portraits.

The tale the exhibition tells begins in the late 1850s and early 1860s, with the works of Degas painted just before, during or immediately after his sojourn in Italy from 1856 to 1858. There, in Florence, he began work on a large portrait of his aunt, Laure Degas Bellelli, flanked by her daughters Giovanna and Giulia, with their father, the distant Gennaro Bellelli, seated at right, his backed turned to the viewer. Laure, in mourning for the death of her father, stands as a tower of melancholy strength between her daughters.

“The Bellelli Family is renowned as the masterpiece of Degas’s early years,” said George T. M. Shackelford, the Kimbell’s deputy director and a specialist in the art of Degas. “It has, before now, been exhibited in the United States only in New York. It is one of the greatest paintings in the Musée d’Orsay, and we are thrilled that it will make its Texas debut in Faces of Impressionism.”

Degas’s mentor, friend and rival Manet led the way for artists coming to maturity in the 1860s, becoming a magnet for younger painters. Three of these are depicted in Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portrait of Manet and his friends, A Studio in the Batignolles, shown at the Salon of 1870. Gathered around Manet, seated at the easel, are a panoply of artists and writers of the day, including Renoir (singled out by a gold frame), Frédéric Bazille (standing tall, on the right), and Monet (in the shadows behind Bazille).

Another founder of Impressionism, Morisot, appears as the central “character” in Manet’s Balcony, presented at the Salon of 1869. “Close the shutters!” one critic remarked, scandalized by the harsh green of the balcony railing and the jalousies (louver windows) at either side of the composition. In a second painting, Manet posed his fellow painter and future sister-in-law against a curtained window, a neutral backdrop that nonetheless plays an active role in the dramatic conception of the figure seen in strong lateral light. “In a face,” Manet said, the painter should “look for the main light and the main shadow; the rest will come naturally—it’s often not important.”

The inclusion of portraits of familiar modern figures within the context of a scene from modern life was a favored device of Manet and Degas. Degas’s radical Orchestra of the Opera was given to his friend Desiré Dihau, the bassoonist shown at center in the first row of musicians. This ingenious painting demonstrates Degas’s desire to “make portraits of people in familiar and typical attitudes,” which would lead him to depict friends and family not only in their homes but in the public sphere—at the opera or in a café. Degas’s famous Absinthe, also in the exhibition, is brooding, its grays and browns contrasting sharply with the colorful, vivacious portrait by Renoir of Alphonsine Fournaise, seated on the terrace of her father’s restaurant beside the Seine at Chatou.

About 1873, Degas began work on a multifigure composition of a Dance Class, an imaginative recreation of a ballet lesson or examination in one of the rooms of the Paris Opera. Working from drawings, he filled the scene with his stock characters, including an anonymous dance master, seen from the back. Sometime later, perhaps in 1874, he changed the figure of the master entirely, substituting in the portrait of a well-known dancer/choreographer, Jules Perrot—a character that modern viewers of the painting (or at least Degas’s target audience) would have recognized. By including a portrait, then, the painter gave greater up-to-date relevance, and greater specificity, to his fantasy scene.

Rare is the Impressionist portrait that was painted on order—most of the artists chose to paint their friends or family for their own artistic ends, rather than accepting commissions from strangers. Sometimes the friend was another artist—in Faces of Impressionism we will see Morisot twice painted by Manet, Bazille by Renoir, Monet by both Bazille and Renoir, Gauguin by Odilon Redon and whole crowds of painters and writers painted by Fantin-Latour and Maurice Denis. The painter’s most familiar model, of course, was the face that could be seen in a mirror. Faces of Impressionism will include a striking assortment of self-portraits, by Degas, Cézanne and Gustave Caillebotte, for instance.

Two remarkable self-portraits by close friends, Van Gogh and Gauguin, are of particular interest. Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, painted towards the end of his two-year stay in Paris, before his departure for the south of France, shows him at the full height of his Impressionist powers, just before he would invent the distinctive broad strokes that characterized the last two years of his short career. Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with “The Yellow Christ” was also painted shortly before a departure—this time an escape to the South Seas. The artist placed his image to the right of the center of the canvas, giving the left half of the composition to the reflected image of his 1890 painting The Yellow Christ. He later added the image of his self-portrait tobacco jar—which he likened to a portrait of “a soul in hell”—to the composition, at right. The ceramic jar itself, also in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, will be shown alongside the painting at the Kimbell. After Gauguin left for the South Seas in 1891, his immersion in the world of native Tahitians led him to portray them—much as his idol Degas might have done—in attitudes familiar and typical to them, in such works as Women of Tahiti.

The 1890s witnessed the transformation of the Impressionist portrait at the hands of artists who had exhibited with the group in the 1870s—notably Renoir, Gauguin and Cézanne. But the directions taken by the old friends Renoir and Cézanne in their fifties could hardly be more different. Cézanne’s art became more and more concerned with the revelation of structure. His Woman with a Coffeepot, for instance, is a brilliant balancing act: the repeated, slightly inclined verticals of a door-frame, a bodice seam, a spoon or a coffeepot answered by horizontals—the cross-members of the door, the sitter’s belt, the saucer underneath a cup. Still, the insistence on structure seems to underscore the painter’s characterization of his sitter, thought to be a servant in the Cézanne household, as an uneasy, and perhaps slightly disapproving, painter’s model. In 1895, Cézanne turned from his Provencal neighbors to the Parisian art world for a subject. He set out to paint a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, who had praised his work the previous year. During the sittings, the painter came to loathe his sitter, to the extent that he put off finishing the canvas and only touched in the details of Geffroy’s head and hands.

Renoir’s sitter Gabrielle, on the other hand, was well used to posing for Renoir when she was painted about 1911. Like Cézanne’s woman, she was a servant, who stayed on with the Renoirs to act as a model to the aging and crippled painter. In contrast to Cézanne’s painting, her likeness is filled with tender romanticism, the iridescent flesh of her face, arms and breasts set off by her coal-black hair and soft white chemise. It is worth noting that this portrait was painted at the same time that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—both great admirers of Renoir’s accomplishment—were inventing Cubism, rejecting for themselves the dependence on observed effects of light that Renoir so cherished.

Faces of Impressionism explores the remarkable variety of approaches to portrait making between 1860 and 1910, the decades that witnessed the birth of Impressionism, its artistic maturity, the challenges issued to it and its eventual influence in the first decade of the 20th century. Renoir, more than any other living Impressionist, upheld the tradition of portraiture to the end of his life. As he brought his career as a painter to a close, in such masterworks as Gabrielle with a Rose, the Impressionist portrait saw a glorious, glowing conclusion. But there were younger painters at work who, in their own way, would take up the tradition and carry it beyond the lifetimes of the original Impressionists. Chief among these was Pierre Bonnard. The Loge, his portrait of the Bernheim-Jeune brothers and their wives in the box of a theater, casts a backward glance over 40 years to Manet’s Balcony, infusing a view of high society with some of the mystery of Degas and Gauguin and with Renoir’s luminous handling of colored pigments. Nostalgic for a past time, Bonnard looks forward to a 20th century in which the example of Impressionism would still be relevant to the creation of another modern art. In this way, Cézanne’s Gustave Geffroy—seen in Faces of Impressionism along with its model, Manet’s Portrait of Émile Zola—exerted a profound effect on the young Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque when they saw it in 1907.

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