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Post-Impressionist masters seize the moment with new handheld cameras in exhibition at the Phillips Collection
George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) in Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Amsterdam, n.d. Gelatin silver print, framed: 12 ¼ x 15 ¼ in. Collection RKD (Netherlands Institute for Art History), The Hague.
WASHINGTON, DC.- The invention of the Kodak handheld camera in 1888 gave post-impressionist artists a new source of inspiration. Seven artists—well known for their paintings and prints—who used the apparatus to document their public spheres and private lives, produced surprising, inventive results. Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard is the first exhibition to focus on how the new technology energized the artists’ working methods and creative vision. Presenting over 200 photographs along with approximately 70 paintings, prints, and drawings from renowned international collections, the exhibition is on view at the Phillips from Feb. 4 through May 6, 2012.

Just as people snap photographs with their digital cameras and cell phones today, Pierre Bonnard, George Hendrik Breitner, Maurice Denis, Henri Evenepoel, Henri Rivière, Félix Vallotton, and Edouard Vuillard used the camera to capture intimate moments with their family and trips to the countryside with friends. They sometimes translated their photographic images directly into their paintings, but more often took photographs simply to explore the world. When viewed alongside the artists’ paintings, prints, and drawings, the snapshots reveal fascinating parallels in radical foreshortening, cropping, lighting, silhouettes, and vantage points.

Several of the artists took photographs together, photographed one another, and shared the results. The artists’ combined output of over 10,000 photographs demonstrates their love affair with the camera, though most of the photographs in the exhibition are unknown and previously unpublished. This is the first exhibition to explore these prints not merely as personal documents, but as pioneering experiments in a new medium.

“The private photographs of these artists—especially Bonnard and Vuillard, whose works are pivotal to The Phillips Collection—reveal their keen eye for the modern world. The unguarded snapshots of their loved ones and the city streets allow us to see life as the artists saw it, a perspective Duncan Phillips ardently championed,” says Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski.

Until the invention of the Kodak camera, visual representation of the world was the realm of professional artists and photographers. Developments in camera technology—roll film, instant shutters, photographic emulsions—removed the public from the technical process; Kodak’s slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” As cameras became cheaper and lighter and developing film became easier, non-professionals were given opportunities to experiment. The post-impressionists were among these new amateur photographers who tried out various camera models, several of which are on view in the exhibition, including the Kodak Bull’s Eye, Kodak Pocket, and Folding Pocket Kodak.

The idea for Snapshot began in the 1980s when exhibition curator Elizabeth Easton discovered a rich collection of photographs by Vuillard, still in the hands of the artist’s family. Determined to reveal the intriguing and unexpected ways post-impressionist artists used the new handheld camera, she collaborated with Phillips Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone, Indianapolis Museum of Art Senior Curator Ellen W. Lee, and Van Gogh Museum Head of Exhibitions Edwin Becker to study hundreds of photographs in museum archives and private collections, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The Musée d’Orsay has loaned nearly 100 photographs and paintings to the exhibition, and its chief curator of photography at the time, Françoise Heilburn, provided substantial expertise.

Technical perfection in photography was rarely the goal, although the artists repeated many subjects and compositions to examine certain effects. They were interested in recording spontaneous moments, capturing movement, and studying light, aiming their cameras at public and private moments.

Brietner’s nearly 3,000 negatives and prints of the streets of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris, and London convey both the bustle and isolation of modern life. Granted exclusive access to the Eiffel Tower during its construction, Rivière produced photographs with dramatic silhouettes.

On a more intimate level, Denis’s family albums (comprising 2,689 prints and 1,250 negatives) are filled with images of private moments with his wife and their seven children. Evenepoel photographed his family and studio, sometimes from unusual points of view. He created striking silhouettes of his family at the edge of Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Bonnard snapped two series of photographs of his mistress outdoors in the nude, which he used as studies for a book-illustration project. Photographs from Vallotton’s trips to the Normandy coast with his family can be seen reflected in his canvases with altered compositions and heightened lighting; more than the other artists, Vallotton used the camera to inform his paintings. Vuillard’s vast archive of surviving prints—only a small percentage made as studies for paintings—include everyday subjects such as his mother or friends, on trips or at home, but their spatial complexity and feeling of intimacy reflect his imagination.

Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), and Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940) were the best known members of the Nabis, a Parisian avant-garde group with a graphic and decorative aesthetic. They studied at the Académie Julian and their paintings were frequently in public exhibitions. The Nabis championed the integration of art and life, drawing upon nature for inspiration. Henri Rivière (1864–1951), designer, engineer, and choreographer of the popular Le Chat Noir Shadow Theater in Paris, was a leader of the era’s printmaking revival, infusing the bold style of Japanese woodcuts into his images of contemporary France.

The exhibition introduces George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923) and Henri Evenepoel (1872–1899) to American audiences, linking their paintings and photographs with the work of the Nabis for the first time. Born in Rotterdam, Breitner painted primarily in Amsterdam, depicting the lives of the working class. Although he exhibited abroad, his fame was limited to the Netherlands. Evenepoel was born in Nice to Belgian parents, but lived in Paris during the 1890s until his untimely death at age 27. A student of Gustave Moreau and close friend of Henri Matisse, Evenepoel left behind some 1,000 drawings and paintings of Parisian life.

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