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The Virginia Museum sheds some light on the enduring appeal of impressionism with a major traveling exhibition. 

Impressive Impressionists

Ask the average person on the street to name their favorite artist, and chances are, the name of an impressionist or a postimpressionist will be included on their list: Claude Monet. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Degas, Cezanne, van Gogh.

Works by these artists have become so entrenched in the popular vernacular, appearing on everything from note cards and posters in college dorm rooms to gift wrap and coffee mugs, that it's difficult to imagine a time when these same images were considered by some critics, and much of the public, to be little more than crass, unfinished sketches.

My, how times have changed. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is this fall banking on an international touring exhibition of impressionist paintings, "Monet, Renoir, and the Impressionist Landscape," to bring 125,000 visitors to the museum during its run from Sept. 19 through Dec. 10, the exhibition's only engagement on the East Coast. Already, 7,500 reservations have been made for the exhibition before advertising has even begun.

Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from its extensive impressionist collection, the exhibition features more than 65 paintings from the 1830s to about 1905, including 13 by Monet, five by Renoir and others by Camille Pisarro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley and lesser-known artists.

The exhibition also features 19 paintings by realists and other landscape painters that preceded the impressionist movement, providing a contrast that illustrates just why the impressionists' works were considered so shocking when they debuted in the early 1870s.

"Our eyes are so blasted by television, we can't see how rough and bright the impressionist pictures were," says Malcolm Cormack, curator of the Virginia Museum's Paul Mellon collection, who has also organized the impressionist exhibition in Richmond. He opens the exhibition catalog to a dark though bucolic scene, "Sheep and Shepherd in a Landscape," by Constant Troyon, c. 1854. He then turns further back in the book, his finger emphatically landing on Claude Monet's 1891 "Grainstack (Sunset)."

"This is a world of difference," he says as he contemplates Monet's vivid palette, short, hasty brush strokes and depiction of light. "The shadows seem to be purple and blue. That is another thing that shocked people … I think even today we have difficulty seeing blue shadows, green shadows — our eyes are not sophisticated enough." Monet's haystack seems to glow. "It's obvious the impressionists are more lucent, brighter, more colorful," Cormack says. The difference is akin to Dorothy's Technicolor arrival in Oz.

Whereas their predecessors made sketches outdoors, then completed their paintings in a studio, the impressionists painted in the open air to best capture the changing qualities of natural light at a particular moment. "It is not easy to paint outdoors," Cormack says. "People are always peering over your shoulder, you have to run inside when it rains and deal with blistering heat."

This is part of the reason why many impressionist paintings resemble rough, unfinished sketches, Cormack says. "Most artists wouldn't dream of exhibiting sketches in a public forum. They were thought to be too crass and too obvious and too much in your face."

Today, of course, impressionist paintings seem rather tame when compared to art of our day - say a Damien Hirst installation of a decaying cow - or even when compared to the art of post- impressionists such as Cezanne, van Gogh, Paul Seurat and Paul Gauguin. Paintings by these artists are included in this exhibition, as well, to show how the innovations of impressionism led the way for these artists to experiment even more boldly.

Cormack says the impressionists were in many ways, the first group of artists to establish the new and the modern with their way of looking at things. "To them, the old way was wrong," he says. "When the next generation came along, the postimpressionists, not all of [the impressionists] were that keen on the younger artists. We now seem to have the idea that new art must renew itself every generation."

And that idea continues in art today, although the popularity of the impressionists endures. "There are endless books and exhibitions," Cormack says. "People are turning out in large numbers to [impressionist] shows, which is why I suppose this was chosen. There has long been a demand from the public for a large impressionist exhibition here."

Part of the appeal of impressionist works, apart from their sheer beauty, Cormack says, is that these paintings are easy to understand. "The impressionists painted anything they thought was emotive," he says. "In some paintings there is very little in the way of composition. It is just like they took a snapshot. … What is difficult to understand is how these paintings were once not
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