Friday, January 15, 2016

Inspiring Impressionism

Hi, my name's Seattle Art Museum but you can call me SAM.

Dreams came true for me this week as I saw with my own eyes some of my favorite Impressionist paintings at the Seattle Art Museum.

As I strolled among the masterpieces and filled my soul with their sparkle and light, my mind traveled back through the decades to the year that I was seventeen.

That's when my senior-in-high-school self signed up for an art history class.

^ Certain artists and paintings generate an electric surge of excitement within me when I see them in person. This one by Degas on his beloved theme of horses was the first piece I saw and delivered quite a jolt.

^ Impressionism was an art movement concerned not so much with working out the precise details of a subject, but quickly capturing a general impression with bold, unblended brush strokes. 

In those days, we called it art humanities, and at my school, this class was touted as the most challenging offering in the entire curriculum. Besides teaching us about frescoes, chiaroscuro and Op Art, Mrs. Rose considered it her privilege and fist-shaking duty to break down our high school hubris and invoke in us a terror for the rigors of college.

Little did she know that her class would teach me three interesting things far beyond the syllabus.

1. Maybe I was ready for the Big World after all.

Up until I took this class, when it came to academics, I was the kind of student who skated by on a sharp memory and a quick mind. With precious little effort, I had always been able to master my classes and bring home top grades.

And while that's a nice skill set, I was also well aware that college was likely to be a deeper pond in which I might not so successfully swim. What I learned from Mrs. Rose was that I was indeed capable of upping my game and meeting her lofty standards. Little did she know that instead of beating me down, her academic rigor gave me waves of confidence that swept me forward into college.

^ The idea of painting peasants at work in an orchard was a revolutionary and shocking idea in 19th century France. Go figure. 

This one hung over my dorm room desk for four straight years.

^ Impressionist painters obsessed over the art of capturing reflected light on water. 
I, for one, am glad for their obsessions. 

2.  It's entirely possible to learn and have fun at the same time.

My shamelessly sassy and oh-so-smart friend, Jeff Miller, happened to attend the class with me. And I must say, we had a blast together. As we slogged through long afternoons of Madonna and Child slides in a darkened classroom, he would lean back over my desk and whisper improvised dialog from the characters in the paintings. His impersonations of other, more serious students in our class were bang-on and snicker-inducing, And when Jeff was particularly feeling his oats, he would drop a pencil on the floor and while ducking down to pick it up, yell out our favorite nickname for our short and stout instructor; "Puaka!"

I know. Taken out of context, those antics sound absurd and adolescent. But there in the back of the classroom, our teenage selves would collapse into snorting giggles and find ourselves completely entertained with our outrageous wit.

Certainly, Mrs. Rose could sniff out troublemakers even in the dark, and she would retaliate by asking either Jeff or me a pointed question about whatever she had just said. Luckily, both of us had the ability to listen as we goofed off, and we compounded her anger with our flawless answers.

In the end, she gave us both As on our report cards. She had to. We killed every test and totally mastered her material. But she also gave us the lowest possible scores for our classroom behavior and contented herself with that punishment. I slow clap her to this very day for that frustrated and entirely futile comeback.

 ^ I've been lucky to see a handful of Van Goghs in my day, and they send shock waves through my soul. This old school work of Dutch tulip fields tells a more restrained color story than his later works, but I love it just the same.  

This one also decorated my dorm rooms throughout my college career. 

^ Up close, this is nothing but a mishmash of green lines and colored blobs. But take one step back, and the chaos transforms to a tranquil meadow in bloom.

3. Art is me.

During my childhood, like all children, I received endless messages, both verbal and nonverbal, about who I was and who I was not. In this way, my parents clearly informed me that I was a person of math and science, and perhaps music. But I was most definitely not an artist. Art, I gathered, did not run in our family, and my occasional requests to foray into that area were met with the message that I was not meant to live in the world of art.

But this art history class - my first formal study of the art world since fourth-grade tissue paper projects - taught me something new about myself. Not only did I seem to have a intellectual knack for understanding art, I felt the fires of passion awaken within me as I took in Caravaggio, David, El Greco, Vermeer and the other masters for the first time.

Especially personal for me were the works of the Impressionists. I loved their landscapes, their still lifes and informal portraiture, their en plein air philosophy and game-changing focus on the beauty of the simple life. I carried that passion far beyond my high school classroom to this very day.

 ^ Impressionist painters typically used a color palette invoking fresh air, fresh flowers and fruits, and a fresh way of looking at the world. Rather than paint the table a single color, Cezanne opted to capture the many tones and hues created by the play of light across the wood. 

^ Outdoor scenes often captured idyllic picnics in dappled shade. Painted hastily on easels, these compositions are perfect example of the Impressionists' preference for working out of doors. 

These are the memories that danced through my mind as I wandered among the Degas and Pissarros, Monets and Renoirs. I am thankful, once again, for a strong-willed teacher whose determination to beat me down actually built me up in life-changing ways, inspired me to pursue a love of art, and made me very much the person I am today.

Thanks, Puaka!

^ Though the overall effect of this painting a bit dark and somber for a typical Impressionist work, the brush strokes in these oysters are classically loose and bold. 

^ Just to be sure that we don't miss the Impressionists' vital sense of playful humor, consider this piece, entitled Mound of Butter.

* * * * *

The works shown are from the Intimate Impressionism exhibit:

The Races | Edgar Degas
George Moore in the Artist's Garden | Edouard Manet
Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes | Camille Pissarro
Festival in the Harbor of Honfleur | Eugène Boudin
Flower Beds in Holland | Vincent Van Gogh
Meadow | Alfred Sisley
Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit | Paul Cézanne
Table Set in a Garden | Pierre Bonnard
Oysters | Edouard Manet
Mound of Butter | Antoine Vollon

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