In the late 19th century, France was amid an epic transformation: Its lush, natural landscapes were rapidly altered by the impact of industrialization and tourism. All the while, artists and photographers of the time were capturing this significant shift in its national identity. As St. Louisans celebrate the 250th anniversary of their own French heritage, they can explore this period of historic art and change in the expansive new exhibit, Impressionist France, on view through July 6 at Saint Louis Art Museum's new East Building.
Conceived by Simon Kelly, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, and April Watson, curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Impressionist France boasts major works from such legendary early impressionists as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, as well as Golden Age photographers, including Gustave Le Gray and Charles Marville.
Via art on canvas and film, guests will travel through French history from 1850 to 1880, experiencing Paris’ modern cityscape and monuments, and the country’s natural landscape of agricultural life, rushing rivers, mysterious forests, majestic mountains and stunning seascapes, to its transformation by way of industry and architecture. “The idea of nation is the premise I started with when I was developing the exposition, and painting and photography are both central to that because both artists and photographers were exploring it,” Kelly explains. “The exhibit looks at ways painters and photographers traveled around France and expressed their vision of the nation, from its rich history of monuments, to the vision of the nation as an industrial center of factories and railroads.”
While some artists embraced the transformation, others refused to engage with it, Kelly notes. Impressionists were among those who immediately took to the monumental change, from Monet’s famed bustling winter-time downtown scene, Boulevard des Capucines, and Renoir’s sun-splashed street view, The Grands Boulevard, to Manet’s colorful flag-lined side-street scene during the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris.
Another dimension of the exhibit highlights France’s 19th century through interactive entertainment. “We also wanted to incorporate fun elements,” Kelly says, noting opportunities for visitors to pen a French postcard and tap touch screens for further exploration into France’s art and history.
During the development of the exposition, Kelly traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and France over several years beginning in 2006, bringing together 120 acclaimed works from 37 institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and France’s Musée d'Orsay. With all the impressive pieces on display in one place, audiences have the rare opportunity to compare and contrast artists’ interpretations of the time period, Kelly explains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people in St. Louis.”