Carnegie Museum of Art show explores link between Impressionism and photography

In a blatant bid for cachet, a cadre of rebellious French artists staged its first show in 1874 in the photography studio of Felix Nadar.

Well-known as a journalist and satirist, Nadar starred in a popular caricature that showed him snapping pictures of Paris from a hot-air balloon. The witty caption reads, "Nadar elevating photography to the level of art."

The struggling artists hoped that people who bought Nadar's photographs would also purchase their painted canvases. Instead, derision, laughter and outright hostility greeted the Impressionists. But two decades later, Claude Monet and some of the other artists scorned by the Beaux-Arts establishment in 1874 had become highly respected, and their fame continues to grow.

Photographers received a better reception. Invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, photography and its practitioners had seized the public's imagination by the end of the 19th century. Alfred Stieglitz, who made his first photos in Berlin in 1883, devoted his life to convincing people that this new way of seeing, derided by some as merely mechanical, was an art form. A magazine publisher, art collector, tireless promoter of young talent and accomplished image maker, Stieglitz is considered the father of American photography.

"Impressionism in a New Light: From Monet to Stieglitz" at Carnegie Museum of Art shows how painters and photographers inspired and influenced one another when their visual dialogue began in the 19th century. Carnegie Museum curators Amanda Zehnder and Linda Benedict-Jones have juxtaposed Impressionist canvases with atmospheric prints by Stieglitz and his colleagues. The show, which required 21/2 years of research and planning, runs through Aug. 26.

A sensual black-and-white portrait of the fetching Evelyn Nesbit, done by Gertrude Kasebier, is so striking that you can easily imagine it gracing the cover of a magazine in 1903, the year it was made. A scene of wet streets in Paris, captured by Stieglitz, shows how in the right hands, photography can be painterly. The show asks two questions: Why was Impressionism so controversial initially, and why is it so popular now?

The rather pat answer to the second question is that American and European museums have curated large shows about various Impressionists since the 1980s. A vast art collection amassed by the late Albert Barnes, which includes many Impressionist canvases, opened in May in Philadelphia at a new downtown location.

The Impressionists' raw, unfinished paintings shocked people because French academic artists exhibited polished canvases and made sure to conceal their brush strokes. They used dark colors to portray historical or religious scenes, mythological subjects, portraits of society figures and still lifes.

By contrast, the Impressionists portrayed ordinary people in their daily lives, used bright colors, and were as enthusiastic about exposing their brush work as Monet was about painting outdoors in scorching sun or toe-numbing cold. The Impressionists rejected one-point perspective and found other ways to render space and volume, Ms. Zehnder said.

"Impressionism is really an offshoot of realism, both in terms of depiction of modern life and optical reality," she said.

While Impressionists valued autonomy, individuality and personal expression, these bohemian revolutionaries disdained the jury system, politics and strict curriculum of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. They rented cheap rooms outside Paris in the rural neighborhood of Montmartre and formed friendships during regular conversations at the Cafe Guerbois or La Nouvelle Athenes.

About 75 percent of the exhibition -- paintings, pastels, drawings, photographs and photogravures -- are drawn from the museum's permanent collection. Works by Boudin, Bracquemond, Cassatt, Gaugin, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Seurat, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh hang in the Heinz Galleries, which have been given a fresh coat of soft yellow paint. This subtle, golden background highlights the blues and greens in the canvases, especially van Gogh's sprawling "Wheat Fields After the Rain" and his scene of windmills in Montmartre, called "Le Moulin de la Galette."

A large image of Nadar's famous photographic studio, which still stands in Paris, greets visitors at the third gallery, where canvases and photographs are grouped thematically. "The Sower," by Jean-Francois Millet, is paired with images of farm laborers by Oscar C. Reiter.

Photography helped people understand how the human eye sees, offered new forms of composition and ways to depict movement. Photographers learned how to focus on one particular subject while the rest of the image was left to make up the depth of field, said Ms. Benedict-Jones, curator of photography.

In Renoir's 1875 painting of modern Paris called "The Grands Boulevards," a horse comes into focus while daubs of paint create blurry trees, groups of people and pedestrians in the background. Next to this canvas is a painterly image Stieglitz made in 1894 called "Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris." Gray light in the watery streets reflects the pedestrians, who are in focus.

"This is what photography taught Impressionists. They softened either the foreground or background," Ms. Benedict- Jones said.

Typically, a painting was unique. In an effort to confer that same high level of cachet for their work, photographers made few prints of an image and used elaborate processes such as platinum, palladium or gum.

"Then it's on a par with a painting. It's really rare," Ms. Benedict-Jones said.

Similarities and contrasts abound. Renoir's "Young Girl in Pink," painted in 1895, hangs next to Stieglitz's portrait of his only child, Kitty. Both girls are seated, face left and are images of innocence.

Robert Demachy's image of dancers, "In the Wings," could be mistaken for a charcoal drawing, but it's a gum bichromate print. It hangs next to a pastel by Degas called "Dancers Entrance on Stage," and the visual comparison heightens the graphic impact of the Degas drawing.

Stieglitz realized that many people relegated photography to simply a science. Taking a page from the Impressionists' playbook, he rebelled against that notion and made carefully composed photographs that looked painterly with soft focus. He also used different techniques to alter the images while developing them.

Ever pushing the envelope, at his gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Stieglitz showcased a veritable who's who of modern painters -- Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Auguste Rodin, Wassily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera and the love of his life, Georgia O'Keeffe.


Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published July 11, 2012 4:00 AM


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here