Impressionists at the Holburne


Portrait of a Girl's Head
Portrait of a Girl’s Head

A new exhibition has just opened at the Holburne Museum titled “Impressionism: Capturing Life” which is, as intended, a very apt description of the aim of the Impressionist painters.  The Holburne is only a small museum and does not have large hanging space for temporary exhibitions and consequently those that it does mount are generally quite focused and intimate.  This one is no exception comprising as it does of only 28 works by artists such as Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.  As with the Canaletto exhibition of last year, the curator has tried to illustrate the impact of European styles on contemporary British artists, in this case the British Impressionist Sir George Clausen, founder-member of the New English Art Club, among others.

I have always especially liked the Impressionists although that is a collective name for a wide range of artists.  Of their number I generally find Renoir to be a little on the “chocolate box” side, a little bit too “soft-focus”, as we might say, and bordering on the sentimental for my taste.  Below is a useful comparison between two portraits.  I don’t have to tell you which is the Renoir but who is the other by?

   Berthe Morisot - 1

The answer is the often overlooked and underrated Berthe Morisot.  She exhibited with the Impressionists from 1874 onwards, only missing the exhibition in 1878 when her daughter was born and was married to Eugène Manet, the brother of her friend and colleague Édouard Manet. For me the Morisot is a far more interesting and powerful portrayal of what would seem to be a woman of strong personality that is well captured.  Although Manet may be regarded as “the master” and Morisot “the follower” she was nonetheless one of the most successful of the Impressionists from a commercial perspective as detailed by Wikipedia:

Morisot’s work sold comparatively well. She achieved the two highest prices at a Hôtel Drouot auction in 1875, the ‘Interior (Young Woman with Mirror)’ sold for 480 francs, and her pastel ‘On the Lawn’ sold for 320 francs.  Her works averaged 250 francs, the best relative prices at the auction.  Morisot became the highest priced female artist in February 2013, when ‘After Lunch’ (1881), a portrait of a young redhead in a straw hat and purple dress, sold for $10.9 million at a Christie’s auction, roughly three times its high estimate, exceeding the $10.7 million for a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois in 2012.

One of my other favourites from the exhibition is this one by Mary Cassatt who was actually American and admired by Degas who invited her to join the Impressionist exhibition of 1879.

The Sisters
The Sisters

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