A Neo-Impressionism exhibit at Washington’s Phillips Collection makes a shimmering, stunning impression. It provides a new look at this movement by focusing on mutual inspirations among painters, poets, and musicians in late 19th century France and Belgium.
“Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music” makes the galleries glow. The 70 mostly Pointillist works are radiant, with light shining through lush colors, or through black conté crayon.
They are by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, and a dozen lesser-known French as well as Belgian painters, who interacted with composers including Claude Debussy, César Franck, and Gabriel Fabre, and Symbolist writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and André Gide.
(The best-known inspiration came a century later, when Neo-Impressionism leader Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” inspired Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine to create “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984, winning the Pulitzer Prize.)
Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe illustrated books of his compatriot and friend, Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren. The poet was also a friend of Signac. Verhaeren’s book of Flemish peasant life, “Les Flamands” surely influenced Pissarro’s “The Pea Stakers”, a design for a fan, and Charles Angrand’s “End of the Harvest” drawing in the exhibition.
Signac and Maximilien Luce designed covers of Fabre’s musical compositions. Signac designed “L’Orgue“, a lithograph with watercolor additions, for the cover of Fabre’s music based on a poem by Charles Cros, one of several examples on display.
“Neo-Impressionist painters, musicians, composers, poets, and other Symbolist writers were close friends, and so fruitfully exchanged their ideas,” Cornelia Homburg, the exhibit’s curator, said at a press preview. “There was lots of passionate back and forth about how to express ideas” in their respective genres.
Paris, capital of the art world during the late 19th century, and Brussels, home to the influential avant-garde group Les XX (the Twenty), became two centers for these cultural exchanges. These interactions, especially at Les XX, “greatly influenced the course of modern art in Europe.”
For example, Seurat, Signac, and several other Neo-Impressionists used music terms in their titles.
Signac’s “Adagio. Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Opus 221”, with boats like notes positioned in a musical composition, is in the exhibit. As one critic wrote of Signac’s first showing at Les XX 1892 exhibition, “Paul Signac was not wrong to give musical titles…he in fact made a truly evocative symphony of the sea.”
However, Signac’s “Effigy (Portrait of My Mother), Opus 235” strikes a sour, jarring note. What Freudian problem(s) he must have had with his stern mother and her overly rosy cheeks. It’s no “Whistler’s Mother” (“Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also used musical references for titles, especially “nocturnes”.
Signac, Neo-Impressionism’s main promoter, explained the main approach of these artists, who moved away from the spontaneity of Impressionism, and toward a measured approach rooted in science and the study of optics. Instead of mixing pigments on a palette, the Neo-Impressionists used separate touches of pigments on the canvas. “The separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights,” Signac explained. These separated elements were applied in individual dots of paint, Pointillism, or in individual strokes, Divisionism.
Pissarro, one of the first to embrace Seurat’s system of color harmony, termed it “a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism.” Pissarro remains better known for his Impressionism.
Some of the numerous other highlights are by lesser-known artists:
- Maximilien Luce’s “Banks of the Seine at Herblay”, sunset radiating on the bank’s autumnal orange hues, against the river’s blues and greens; and his “Camaret, Moonlight, and Fishing Boats”, in the blue-purple glow of a three-quarter moon.
- Theo van Rysselberghe’s “The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening”, with brilliant shades of yellow, from gold to lemon, contrast with lavender and blue hues.
- Charles Angrand’s drawings are even more dramatic than his paintings, like “The Seine at Dawn (Mist)”, that makes the viewer feel the moisture and almost hear what he termed his “Gray Symphony”. But Angrand’s black conté crayon drawings “The Annunciation to the Shepherds” and “The Good Samaritan”, with barely illuminated eerie figures, are absolutely haunting.
Artist Henry van de Velde aptly describes his fellow Neo Impressionists’ goals, “To establish the Dream of realities…to strive for the pursuit of the Intangible and meditate–in silence–to inscribe the mysterious Meaning.”
For more info and tickets: “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music”, Sept. 27-Jan. 11, Phillips Collection, www.phillipscollection.org, 1600 21st Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-387-2151. Tickets. The Phillips Camerata will perform concerts reflecting this cultural synergy, with music by César Franck among others, on Oct. 5 and Oct. 9. More related events are listed here.