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Sisley's Boat In The Flood Of Port-Marly.

Renoir's Gabrielle With A Rose.

Morisot's The Cradle.

'A bunch of lunatics and a woman'

The Impressionists were dismissed in 1874 but went on to revolutionise art. Their works are now showing at the National Gallery.
Nov 17, 2017 5:50 AM

OH, critics. What do they know?

In 1874, a group of radical French artists decided to show their paintings in an independent art show, after the works were rejected by the country's important annual art show Salon de Paris. Their methods and approaches - free and loose brush strokes, unblended colours, an obsession with mundane subjects and the natural light - all offended the influential art critics of the time.

The 50 artists included Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissaro, Eduoard Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot.

An unsympathetic critic dismissed them as "a bunch of lunatics and a woman". Another derided Monet's painting as "unfinished", giving the viewer merely "some impression" of the subject. Strangely, that word "impression" stuck and became the name of the new art movement that would change the world.

It was art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who recognised the market potential of the Impressionists. Compared to the popular highly-finished classical paintings of the time, the Impressionist paintings look rushed and sketchy, but had a vividness, realism and energy of their own.

Durand-Ruel reckoned that the emerging nouveau riche middle class wanted art that looked different from its vaunted predecessor.

And he was right.

The bad press the artists received only stoked the interest of the bourgeoisie who wanted art that depicted their everyday lives - not mythical, biblical and historical figures often seen in popular paintings.

The Impressionists were able to sell their works and continue experimenting with the medium. Critical recognition soon followed and the iconoclastic attitudes of the Impressionists became the classic template for how artists view themselves.

All of this brings us to the present time and place where National Gallery Singapore has just opened its Century Of Light exhibition showcasing Impressionist artworks from the renowned Musee d'Orsay in Paris. It is the first exhibition of its kind in Southeast Asia and features 60 artworks by all the aforementioned "lunatics and a woman", plus a few more of their unconscionable ilk.

Curated by Marine Kisiel and Paul Perrin, the exhibition runs parallel to the show on Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, two 19th century South-east Asian painters who are revered as national heroes in Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively.

Among the highlights of the Impressionist show is Monet's La Pie (The Magpie, 1868-1869), a depiction of a winter landscape that eloquently renders the white of the snow with near-imperceptible strokes of yellow, blue and pink.

A similar achievement is found in Manet's Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne (Moonlight Over The Port Of Boulogne, 1869) where Manet experiments with shades of black, blue and grey to depict the silhouettes of people and boats in a port at night.

Sisley's La barque pendant l'inondation, Port-Marly (Boat In The Flood Of Port-Marly, 1876) is a prime example of early Impressionist style. Here the undulating floodwater is rendered in short broken strokes of blue, yellow, white and green - reflecting the cloud-filled sky but also emanating its own surface movements.

There are some good examples of Pissaro, Renoir and Cezanne here, as well as works by the Neo-Impressionists, a movement founded 12 years after the Impressionists. The latter's pointillist canvases displayed here include Georges Seurat's working paintings for his 1884 masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte) and Paul Signac's La bouée rouge (The Red Buoy, 1895).

Anyone infatuated with the history of Impressionism may be a little disappointed that the Musee d'Orsay did not bring Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon On The Grass, 1862-1863) and Olympia (1863), two works pivotal to the artistic revolution - or, for that matter, Cezanne's The Card Players (1895), Renoir's Dance At Le Moulin de la Galette (1876), or a single Edgar Degas.

But one may take comfort in the fact that in this situation, the "woman" among the "lunatics" has come through - as women often do. Morisot's most famous painting Le Berceau (The Cradle, 1872), a work that has inspired artists throughout history, is here in the flesh.

The painting depicts a woman (Morisot's sister) quietly watching her baby. But her slightly tense facial expression and twitchy fingers suggest impatience with the burden of motherhood. Painted in the early waves of feminism, it is celebrated precisely because it depicts maternal duty with all its conflicting emotions. Its image speaks to women everywhere.

  • National Gallery Singapore's Century Of Light exhibition featuring works by the Impressionists as well as Raden Saleh and Juan Luna runs till March 11, 2018. Tickets at the door.