I n 1910, British art historian Roger Fry forever changed the art world when he coined the term post-Impressionism in an exhibition titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries. Now a cornerstone exhibition in the history of art, the exhibition outlined – for the first time – the development of modern art in the wake of Édouard Manet, featuring titans of French art like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne in the category he termed post-Impressionists. This collection offered by Sotheby’s in The Modern Evening Auction on 16 May pays homage to the spirit of Fry’s radical conception of modern art.
Sotheby’s Spotlight: The Impressionist Spirit: an Important Private Collection
The present collection follows the same historical criteria established by Sir Roger Fry, as he invented the very definition of post-Impressionism. Indeed, the present collection begins with Manet and ends with Derain and Bonnard – just as Roger Fry would have it. Le Promeneur, painted in 1879, features a favorite archetype of the bourgeoisie: the flâneur. Immortalized by French novelist and poet Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life, the flâneur may be described as the city’s “passionate spectator” who rejoiced in his ability to move through the vast city boulevards while admiring shops and passers-by freely and anonymously.
Much like the archetypal character of the flâneur, Manet himself was aloof, having always refused to join the Impressionists. Yet, the painter’s influence on the group remains indisputable. As Fry made clear as early as 1910, Manet laid the groundwork for the Impressionists’ innovative approach to painting. Le Promeneur reveals Manet’s influential visual language in the dainty daubs of white, applied as a gestural quiver to create the perfect, highly sensorial effect of the cold snow on the pavement. The melting snow allows for the gentle reflections of light and color and contributes to a world of reverberation. Here, light is skillfully reflected as delicate rays of reds and yellows on the slick surfaces of the store windows and even, subtly illuminating the sheen of the gentleman’s silk top hat.
Following in Manet’s footsteps, the Impressionists became the inheritors of this revolutionary visual language. With a keen eye for capturing light and its brilliant atmospheric effects, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Jeune Fille Assise dans un Jardin (c. 1875) vibrates with color. The lush cross-hatching of the aegean blues and emerald greens that form the garden scenery surrounding the sitter creating a tapestry-like effect, akin to the finest woven silks. Renoir’s technical prowess here embodies the quintessential Impressionist spirit embodied in the first four Impressionist exhibitions.
By the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, the Impressionists slowly begin to fall out of sync with one another. Sometimes called the crisis of Impressionism, from this point forward, their works become increasingly visually distinct from one artist to the next. And yet, the indominable influence of Manet remains.
Akin to a visual quotation, Impressionists like Gustave Caillebotte continued to create works indebted to the visual idioms first introduced by Manet. For instance, Caillebotte’s Nature Morte aux Huîtres (1881), appropriates several elements of a still life of oysters by Manet, executed twenty years earlier! Manet’s work, created as a gift to his then fiancée, had then hung in the Manet family home where Caillebotte may have seen it. Both still lifes features a plate of plump oysters and a side of two lemon halves. And yet, whereas Manet focuses much of his attention on the subtle tonal patches of color of the oyster’s themselves, Caillebotte relishes in the reflective surfaces of his composition – including capturing light refractions on the wine glass, bottle, blade of the knife in addition to the mother of pearl interior texture of the oysters themselves.
By the mid-1880s, fellow Impressionist Claude Monet further expands on the possibilities of Impressionistic brushwork with a series of vibrant works created in the South of France and Bordighera, Italy. Fueled by personal crisis in his family life, Monet decided to leave Giverny and accompany Renoir on a painting trip to warmer climates. There, Monet created brilliant, experimental landscapes. In Au Cap Martin (1884), the chromatic contrasts between the mountain range, the foliage of the trees and the hue of the earth reverberates thanks to a palette steeped in the warm colors of these sunny climates. Similarly, in Palmier à Bordighera (1884), Monet’s palm trees seem only a pretext for increasingly daring experimentation with exuberate brushwork and a palette vibrating with its heightened intensity.
The only Impressionist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions, Camille Pissarro skillfully explores the chromatic possibilities of a more muted palette in Le Jardin des Tuileries et le Pavillon de Flore, Effet de Neige (1899). Painting from his newly acquired studio window at 204 rue de Rivoli, Pissarro boasted in a letter that he had, “engaged an apartment at 204 rue de Rivoli, opposite the Tuileries, with a superb view of the garden, the Louvre to the left, in the background the houses on the quays behind the trees, to the right the Dôme des Invalides, and the steeples of Sainte-Clotilde behind clumps of chestnut trees. It’s very beautiful. I shall have a fine series to paint.”
From his studio, Pissarro could wait patiently for lighting conditions that would please him. There, he produced this near monochromatic painting that paradoxically nonetheless contains a wide variety of colors in its palette – pinks, blues, greens, lavender, mauves, violet tones – but each treated with such restraint so as to not overpower the sublime balance of the composition.
Working in reaction to the Impressionists, Georges Seurat devised a revolutionary new approach to painting, coined as neo-impressionism (or pointillism) by art critic Félix Fénéon. Whereas Impressionism embraced the subjectivity inherent to the artist’s perspective on a subject, pointillism sought out a more objective perspective. In Seurat’s Printemps à la Grande Jatte (c. 1884–85) the early beginnings of his pointillist approach are visible as each individual brushstroke becomes more significant than what it depicts, a potentiality that anticipates the foundations of abstraction decades later.
Known for their fierce brushwork and bold color, the post-Impressionist artists, like Henri Matisse and André Derain – known as the Fauvists – became the final bookends to Roger Fry’s landmark exhibition, in 1910. Perhaps the most radical of the post-Impressionists, the Fauvists received their name from French art critic Louis Vauxcelles who initially called them les fauves, meaning wild beasts, at the Salon d’Automne exhibition of 1905. The term Fauve was intended to reference to their wild use of color.
The Fauvists famously applied color to their subjects in non-naturalistic ways. In an early work by Derain titled Paysage de Neige à Chatou (1904), the artist rejoices in unmitigated color – celebrating the chromatic possibilities of pastel violets, pinks, and golden yellows in the winter sky. Never a Fauve himself, Bonnard embodied a similar chromatic sensuality, as in Oranges et Kakis (1940), a still life of jubilant color in which oranges and persimmons vibrate with small daubs of white set against warm yellows and oranges and contrast against the soft emerald green fabric interior of the wicker basket.
With excellent works from Manet to the post-Impressionists, this collection stands in deference to Roger Fry and his incalculable contribution to the history of art. It celebrates the vibrant essence of post-Impressionism today.