Great selfies, pretty food, cute animals, beach scenes, landscapes and party pics can all be found in “Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art” at the McNay Art Museum, but this is a sumptuous blockbuster exhibit featuring nearly 70 paintings tracing the period in the late 19th century when French artists broke with the tradition of grand history paintings to focus on the small pleasures of everyday life.
Capping the McNay’s 60th anniversary season, this collection is touring for the first time while the National Gallery undergoes renovations. The tour began in Rome and stopped in San Francisco before coming to Texas and will continue on to Tokyo and Seattle. This is a rare opportunity to see one of the National Gallery’s most beloved collections without having to make a trip to the nation’s capital.
Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley—impressionism’s big names—are the featured artists, but the exhibit actually extends before and after the loosely defined movement, beginning with Eugène Boudin, a marine painter who first encouraged Monet to paint “en plein aire” or “in the open air,” and ending with Pierre Bonnard, the founder of post-impressionism, whose paintings burst with bold, psychedelic colors.
In between are major artists such as Èdouard Manet, avatar of modern art; Paul Cézanne, pioneer of the transition to 20th-century cubism; Èdouard Vuillard, a member of the post-impressionist group Les Nabis; Georges Seurat, pointillist; Paul Gauguin, whose experiments with color are now labeled primitivism; and Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential starving artist. Not to mention Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Berthe Morisot, Odilon Redon and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
“Intimate” means the paintings are small. The largest are about 24 by 29 inches and most are even smaller. And while the subject matter can be intimate, especially the domestic interiors, landscapes and seascapes abound, although they were probably painted on the spot outdoors on the artist’s portable easel. Painting outdoors encouraged the impressionists to experiment with light and color, creating brilliant, luminous works that reign as the art world’s box office champions.
Generally, these paintings were purchased to decorate the New York apartment of Ailsa Mellon Bruce and the Virginia mansion of her brother, Paul Mellon. They were the children of the National Gallery’s founder, Andrew Mellon, a Pittsburgh banker.
“[These were] pictures that they had bought and lived with in their homes, but always intended to give to the nation,” Mary Morton, curator and head of the Department of French Paintings at the National Gallery, explains in her catalog essay. “These are pleasure paintings— works made for private enjoyment, at home, every day.”
William Chiego, McNay director, notes numerous similarities between the works acquired by Bruce, who collected from the 1940s until her death in 1969, and the San Antonio museum’s founder, Marion Koogler McNay, who formed her collection from the 1920s until her death in 1950.
“Both women appear to have shared a love of painterly, spontaneous works that clearly show the artist’s hand,” Chiego says. “Their taste for freely executed, small-scale pictures was serendipitous and the parallels between the collections will allow McNay visitors to compare and contrast intimate works by Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Bonnard and van Gogh, as well as Boudin, Sisley, Manet, (Antonie) Vollon and Vuillard.”
The first gallery offers a mini-retrospective of Boudin. Bruce’s six paintings by the artist joined with the 12 collected by her brother constitute the largest collection of Boudins in the U.S. These are mostly jaunty, joyous paintings of seaside scenes, especially the tall ships decorated with colorful banners in Festival in the Harbor of Honfleur (1858) and the twin panoramas of the Beach Scene at Trouville (1863-1865) with the women dressed in their white, flowing, crinoline dresses and the men in suits and straw hats. A wall label directs visitors to look for another painting of Trouville by Boudin in the McNay’s permanent collection.
A pair of Pissarros, Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes (1872) and The Fence (1872), were cleaned and restored before going on tour, Morton says, providing a chance to see what the paintings of flowering fruit trees and neighbors gossiping looked like to the artist. The rural themes are echoed by one of the McNay’s real treasures, Pissarro’s Haymakers Resting (1891).
Among the outstanding landscapes are Monet’s Argenteuil (1872), flanked by two via Sisley, Boulevard Héloïse, Argenteuil (1872) and Flood at Port-Marly (1872), influenced by their encounters with Boudin. For water lilies by Monet, though, you’ll have to see the McNay’s. Van Gogh’s Flower Beds in Holland (1883) is rarely reproduced, perhaps because of the wintry sky, but the McNay has turned it into a postcard. Seurat’s teeny-tiny Study for La Grande Jatte (1884) barely suggests the grandeur of his full-scale masterpiece. However, the most unusual landscape is Renoir’s dreamy and rather awkward The Vintagers (1879).
Renoir, of course, is better known as a portraitist. Highlights are his portraits of Claude Monet (1872), looking studious reading a book and smoking a pipe, and the artist’s family, Madame Monet and Her Son (1874), a souvenir from the summer when the two artists painted together.
Selfies include self-portraits by Degas, Fantin-Latour and Vuillard. Gauguin portrays himself as an impetuous young man, which makes an interesting comparison to the mature self-styled sage that belongs to the McNay.
Pretty food, fruit and flowers fill the still-life section. The most mouth-watering may be Manet’s Oysters (1862), which the artist used to decorate his dining room. Vollon painted a mound of luscious, yellow butter and eggs. Cute animal pictures include Manet’s magnificent portrait A King Charles Spaniel (1866).
Vuillard’s modernistic interiors, notably The Conversation (1891), indicate the bourgeois life might not have been all sweetness and light. But the final gallery devoted to Bonnard brims with beautiful images of domestic bliss, such as Table Set in the Garden (1908) and the almost abstract Stairs in the Artist’s Garden (1942-44).
With a pop-up shop, lectures, films, concerts, luncheons, Oui! Wednesdays, French Thursdays and extended Sunday hours, “Intimate Impressionism” has all the accoutrements of a blockbuster at the McNay, but the real pleasures are simple, sensuous and sublime.