About the Exhibition

Curated by George T. M. Shackelford, the Kimbell’s deputy director, with Xavier Rey, director of collections and curator of paintings, Musée d’Orsay, Faces of Impressionism explores the character and development of the portrait in French painting and sculpture from the late 1850s until the first years of the twentieth century. Spanning some fifty years, the exhibition encompasses the origins, the flowering, and the transformation of Impressionism through portraits by thirty painters and sculptors. The major figures of Impressionist portraiture—Caillebotte, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, and Renoir—are represented in depth. Among the approximately seventy masterworks on loan are Cézanne’s Portrait of Gustave Geffroy and Woman with a Coffeepot; Degas’s Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family) and In a Café (Absinthe); and Renoir’s Portrait of Claude Monet and Yvonne and Christine Lerolle at the Piano. Artists who worked alongside them but who did not exhibit with the Impressionists are also featured with some of their best-known works. Manet’s Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets and Stéphane Mallarmé are displayed with Fantin-Latour’s renowned group portrait of Manet and his followers, A Studio in the Batignolles. Additionally, the artists working just after the Impressionists—some of whom participated in the Impressionist exhibitions—take their place in the discussion; among the featured works are self-portraits by Gauguin and Van Gogh, pointillist studies by Seurat and Signac, The Clown Cha-U-Kao by Toulouse-Lautrec, and Denis’s monumental group portrait, Homage to Cézanne. The exhibition provides an opportunity to compare and to contrast, across decades, works that relate to each other by theme or by type but which are rarely seen together in the galleries of the Musée d’Orsay.

The First Impressionist Portraits    See more images

The story of Impressionist portraiture is not simply the story of ordinary bust-length likenesses. Working within a genre, transforming it, or subverting it, the inventive portraits painted from the 1860s by Manet, Degas, and Renoir went beyond likeness, often seeking to convey another level of meaning by suggesting narrative. On the other hand, images that were scenes of history or modern life could be reinvigorated by the addition of portrait elements: Manet peopled his most daring paintings of the early 1860s with individuals known to him.

Two paintings are cases in point: Degas’s Family Portrait, the masterful depiction of his aunt Laure Degas Bellelli, her daughters Giovanna and Giulia, and her noble husband Gennaro, had been begun by 1859 but was finished only in time for the Salon of 1867. At the Salon a year later, Manet would present The Balcony, which immediately raised the ire and scorn of critics, who ridiculed its composition and color, as well as the poses of its models, all friends of the artist’s.

In Degas’s masterpiece, a straightforward portrait of a real family observed in the home is given a sense of narrative by the use of nuanced gesture, carefully organized pose, detailed physiognomy, and specific setting. By contrast, The Balcony—a staged scene that purports to be viewed by an omniscient narrator—is given personality by the vivid presence of identifiable people close to the painter.

Portraying Modern Life    See more images

A back should reveal temperament, age, and social condition, a pair of hands should reveal the magistrate or the merchant, and a gesture should reveal an entire range of feelings. Physiognomy will tell us with certainty that one man is dry, orderly, and meticulous, while another is the epitome of carelessness and disorder.

Thus wrote the novelist and critic Edmond Duranty in 1876, in an essay devoted to Impressionism—“The New Painting.” Duranty, a close friend to Degas, promoted paintings that would use pose, gesture, and facial characterizations to tell more about a subject than met the eye. By knocking down “the partition separating the artist’s studio from everyday life,” the creative imagination would be set free to explore new ideas.

In the 1870s, the Impressionists concentrated on the modern world, particularly Parisian life. Degas, Renoir, and Manet often used likenesses to enliven paintings that otherwise would not be considered portraits. Stressing facial features and distinctive postures—“familiar and typical attitudes,” as Degas phrased it—argued for an increased, portrait-like specificity in innovative scenes of everyday life. When Degas depicted his friend Désiré Dihau in The Orchestra of the Opera, he made a radical portrait of a known individual, given modern resonance by narrative and setting. When, on the other hand, he populated In a Café (Absinthe) with his friends, he brought veracity to a modern genre painting through the element of portraiture.

The Impressionist Portrait Comes of Age    See more images

Over the course of the 1870s and 1880s—and indeed into the early 1890s—the portraits painted by the Impressionists were as varied as were the artists and their sitters. With Manet’s death in 1882 and Degas’s increasing preoccupation with dancers, bathers, and horses, Renoir dominated the realm of Impressionist portraiture as far as the public was concerned.

The ploy of using a “hidden” portrait, often practiced by Manet and Degas, was less favored by Renoir, who, more than any of the other Impressionists, relied on portraiture for his livelihood. Renoir’s portraits at this time—such as Alphonsine Fournaise—are comparatively straightforward, tenderly painted likenesses. Though setting plays a role in explaining the social identity of the figures, Renoir is primarily concerned with fixing the sitter’s appearance.

In the 1880s, some of the painters—like Monet—who had favored landscape over the figure turned to portraiture, or at least to the portrayal of people in the open air. Monet’s Study of a Figure in Nature, like paintings by Manet and Renoir, places his subject in a landscape, lit not by a candle or oil lamp but by the sky. As the years went by, the Impressionists’ colors became more vivid—as indicated by Berthe Morisot’s Hydrangea (The Two Sisters) of 1894, painted only a year before her death.

New Portrait Modes    See more images

As a result of the investigations of their forebears, a vast range of options opened to the artists exploring portraiture in the wake of Impressionism, especially Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. Toulouse-Lautrec, whose affinity for incisive draftsmanship rivaled that of his idol Degas, would turn that talent to good use in capturing the physiognomies of his models, whether they were his aristocratic relatives or lower-class workers, even prostitutes. Seurat and his followers—neo-Impressionists or “pointillists”—applied their particular method of painting to tried-and-true portrait formulas but gave a twist of unusual design or scientific method to their explorations.

“What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest in my profession—is the portrait, the modern portrait,” wrote Van Gogh in 1890. “I would like to do portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later.” The search for “a means of expression and intensification” that led Van Gogh to transcribe nature through bright color and powerful brushwork has its parallel in his friend Gauguin’s search to find “salvation only in extremes.” In such paintings as Self-Portrait with “The Yellow Christ,” Gauguin the Impressionist would become Gauguin the Symbolist, the artist who would be memorialized by his friend—and sometime exhibitor with the Impressionists—Odilon Redon.

At the century’s close, the artists who had founded the Impressionist movement in the 1870s had reached old age. Manet and Berthe Morisot had died, but the others were entering the last phases of their careers, sometimes rejuvenating their art through radical transformation, sometimes returning to their earliest manner as if in reverie. Impressionism was for most people a movement from the past, measured either as a moment of glory for the fine arts in France or as a hopelessly old-fashioned way of seeing the world, depending on the individual’s point of view.

In the mid 1890s, the works of Cézanne were a revelation when they were publicly exhibited in Paris for the first time in almost twenty years. His progress, virtually unknown to all but his closest friends and collectors, was a surprise to a young generation of artists and critics.