Friday, October 30, 2009

Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia

In 1877, Cassatt's parents and sister Lydia came to live in Paris with Mary who was struggling to gain some place in the art scene. As Mary had decided not to marry (and "dwindle into a wife"), Lydia was her close companion whom she painted several times. But Lydia was ill and after five years in Paris, she died. For a time Mary was too bereaved to work.

There is a lovely, thoughtful novel about the Cassatt sisters called "Lydia Cassatt reading the morning papers" by Harriet Scott Chessman. The portrait shown is Lydia two years before she died as painted by Mary.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the closeness of sisters: Edma and Berthe Morisot

There were three Morisot sisters, daughters of an upper middle-class family in Paris, but it was the two younger, Edma and Berthe, who grew up as painters together, studying with Corot and copying at the Louvre. When Edma married Adolphe Pontillon and moved to Brittany, the separation was painful. Edma wrote: "I am often with you in my thoughts. I follow you everywhere in your studio and wish that I could escape, if only for a quarter of an hour, to breathe again that air in which we lived." The unmarried Berthe, then 28, replied, "Remember it is sad to be alone." Berthe did not marry until five years later; she had watched household responsibilities seep away the talent from her less-driven sister and vowed it would not happen to her.

Portrait of Edma Morisot by her sister Berthe

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A compassionate offer from Manet...

Manet's early painting, Luncheon on the Grass

From a letter 1875 to the art critic Duret:
"I went to see Monet yesterday. I found him in great distress, and at his wits' end. He asked me if I could find someone who would buy at choice ten or twenty of his paintings at 100 francs each. Do you think that we could fix him up between ourselves, each of us contributing 500 francs? Of course it must be understood that nobody, and he least of all, should know that we are arranging it ourselves."

Manet was not always so tactful or friendly to Claude Monet. When Monet had his first small success at the Salon, everyone congratulated Manet for it (confusing their names) which Manet did not like at all. He was a complex man in every way.

I am indebted for this translation once again to the excellent book The Impressionists at First Hand by Denvir. I owned it many years before the thought dawned on me to write about them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

after an impressionistic day picking apples...

My husband and I went apple picking, rather the last of the crop this late October day, and the light shone down making the grass glisten. The autumn foliage surrounded us and the world smelled of apples. Surely, it was a day and place made for an impressionist! I thought of a BERTHE MORISOT painting of young girls picking fruit, but it turned out they were picking cherries. I found another by her of a girl eating an apple under an apple tree.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The lost years of the Giverny gardens.

Forty years had passed since Claude Monet’s death when his younger son Michel died in 1966 and during that time little or nothing was done to keep up the gardens. The Academie des Beaux-Arts (the heirs to the property and house) found them in ruins. Rats overran them. The greenhouse panes and the windows in the house were reduced to shards after the bombings of World War II. Floors and ceiling beams had rotted away, a staircase collapsed. Three trees were even growing in the big studio. Almost ten years were necessary to restore the gardens to their former magnificence.

The new custodians expected only a modest number of visitors but, to their surprise, the numbers grew steadily until they now exceed a half million each year. One of the Giverny guides writes a poetic journal in French of life in the gardens today which can be found on line at

Renoir, the painter of café walls...

Most people don't know that for a time before his paintings sold, the young Auguste Renoir made a sort of living painting café walls. The family of one café owner was amazed as they watched him rush up and down a ladder "like a squirrel." The owner was so pleased with the painting of Venus rising from the waves that Renoir's reputation got around and soon he had covered twenty Paris café walls with murals. Alas, not one remains. He was just a thin, eager painter who could paint a lovely girl on a wall in exchange for a glass of wine or a bowl of soup. This story is from the marvelous memoir RENOIR: MY FATHER, by the film director Jean Renoir.

Friday, October 16, 2009

I am just truly discovering Cézanne...

...or rather I am rediscovering him, for I think with great writers, composers and artists you come to them anew as you grow and change. And in first getting to know the impressionists better, you can find yourself more drawn to one than another, as you find yourself talking more deeply to one person at a dinner party and later realize you missed the quiet man at your side who just sat drinking his soup!

Cézanne was an angry and difficult young man with few social graces and when he was old he was so obsessed with his painting that weather did not deter him and he became ill in a downpour and, disregarding all but his work, died soon after. I will give two quotes of this urgent, beloved visionary: "A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art," and "We live in a rainbow of chaos." Much more to come!

Susan Vreeland's novel about Renoir

I think nothing can bring the everyday lives of the French impressionists to us more vividly than fine, sensitive historical fiction. In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan Vreeland tells the fascinating story of the painter Renoir and his many friends, all who modeled, or loaned money, or sewed dresses, or gave encouragement, or provided a small dog, or struggled with love, as he painted his famous picture. How many people contribute each in their own way to create a work of art! Often their voices or the colors of their individual lives are lost to time. Susan Vreeland has heard and captured those voices and created as well a picture of this most modest painter Renoir who said he wanted to put beauty in the world not ugliness, and who, in his final days on earth, exclaimed that at last he understood how to paint a flower.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Monet seeking the impossible

"I am chasing a dream. I want the unattainable. Other artists paint a bridge, a house, a boat; and that's the end. They're finished. I want to paint the air which surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat, the beauty of the air in which these objects are located, and that is nothing short of impossible. If only I could satisfy myself with what is possible!"

from Denvir: "The Impressionists at First Hand"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

the blunt and gifted Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt’s parents objected to her becoming a professional artist, but even so this American painter moved to Paris to study in 1866 (the year Claude Monet met his love Camille) with her mother of course as chaperone. Women could not attend the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts at that time, so she studied privately. After some years, Mary returned to America and but later she was able to settle in France once more with her family, including her beloved sister who was in poor health. A blunt woman, Cassatt was welcomed by the newly banded impressionists whom one critic thought were such bad painters that they were “afflicted with some hitherto unknown disease of the eye.” Cassatt did not think so. She wrote, “We are carrying on a despairing fight and need all our forces.” Encountering Degas, she knew she had found her light.

More to come about this remarkable artist in further posts!

Monday, October 12, 2009

studio in the rue de la Condamine

One afternoon when many of his artist friends were visiting, the congenial painter Frédéric Bazille took up his brush and made a fast portrait of all of them. Experts differ on the identity of some of them, but Edouard Manet is before the easel and the men on and below the open stair may be Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. When the painting was nearly done, impetuous Manet snatched the brush and pushed Bazille into place to paint him into his own picture...a bit too tall. Bazille's good friend Edmond plays the corner spinet to entertain them all. It would not be until four years later that the painters would have their first independent exhibition and be called impressionists.

Thoughts from Degas at age 39

from a letter written on his trip to New Orleans
"How much I want to tell you about my art! If I could have another twenty years' time to work, I could produce things that would endure. Am I to end up like that [paintings he did not like], after racking my brains like somebody possessed, and after having experienced so many ways of seeing and doing?" Degas had begun his ballet paintings five years before the writing of this letter.

This quote is from the marvelous book "The Impressionists at First Hand" by Bernard Denvir.Some people do not consider Degas really an impressionist.

lovely and gifted Berthe Morisot

Here is a portrait of the lovely young artist as seen by her colleague Edouard Manet (who was rather in love with her). Born into a good Parisian family in 1841, she and her sister Edma showed a much stronger gift for painting than the usual well-bred girls of their age who would make pretty watercolors and tuck them in an album to show visitors. Art was her joy and torment, for she never felt she was good enough though her work was warmly welcomed by her fellows Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and others for display in the first impressionists' exhibition. The critics and some of the public, however, were scandalized by the exhibition's paintings which they called merely sketches; one man even shouted that modest Berthe was a whore. Pissarro promptly punched him in the face.

Much more to come on her exquisite work!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

new van Gogh novel SUNFLOWERS

October 13th 2009 sees the publication of a new van Gogh novel by Sheramy Bundrick. Publishers' Weekly wrote: "A knockout debut impressive volume of suspense, delight, and heartbreak" and novelist Susan Vreeland praised it as "Lays bare in rich, compelling scenes the mystery of the turbulent and misunderstood final two years in van Gogh’s life." A wonderful portrait of van Gogh!

Claude's love for Camille

Camille was eighteen when she met him and only thirty-two when she died; she left her good home to live with him and her parents disowned her. She was charming and a clever amateur actress and I think that their good friend, the struggling painter Renoir, had a particular tenderness for her for he painted her often and she almost always smiled for him with a special sweetness.(Who could not like Renoir?) Claude adored her and was devastated when she died. Here he painted her with a dog. What did he say to her as he painted? "Stay still just twenty minutes more, then we'll go out someplace cheap for dinner and wine and then, dearest, when we come home...." We try to hear the murmurs of the young lovers in a hidden room in Paris in 1866.

gentle Pissarro

This painting is "The Stage Coach at Louveciennes - 1870"

I have a great love for Camille Pissarro whose paintings of rural French life make me deeply happy; if possible, I would walk inside one. He was born in 1830 and died in 1903. I find his use of color particularly beautiful. He did not have Claude Monet's gift for putting himself forward nor Renoir's for portraiture, and so he remained fairly poor all his life. His paintings are worth millions now but towards the end of his life he sometimes did not have the train fare to go to Paris to try to sell his work. His collected "Letters to His Son Lucien" are remarkable and his portraits of his several children very tender. When he began to paint, the great Corot stood up for him; in later years he mentored Cézanne and Gauguin. Cézanne said, "Pissarro was a father to me...something like the good Lord.”

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Did the impressionists make good husbands?

Many people think of artists as promiscuous and it is true a few of the impressionists had a roving eye. When Manet's wife caught him following another woman, he excused himself, saying,"But I thought it was you, dear!" However, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Renoir were very devoted to their wives and depended on them very much. Monet never painted anyone as much as he did his first wife Camille; Renoir married a seamstress in his 40s and adored her, and Pissarro married his mother's maid Julie. As for the famous women artists, Cassatt did not marry and Morisot married Manet's brother Eugene....a real story there! The painting shown is of Sisley and his wife by their good friend Renoir.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The first oil paint tubes made impressionism

In 1841, when the very young Claude Monet had just celebrated his first birthday, the American artist John Rand patented the first collapsible metal tube for artist’s oil paint. Before that happy invention, artists had to grind their colors and mix them with oil and thinner and, if an artist wanted to work outdoors, he had to carefully pack his prepared paint in breakable glass vials or leaky animal bladders. By the time Claude was seventeen and beginning to paint, he was likely spending a lot of his money on those tubes. His good friend Renoir declared years later, “Without paint in tubes, there would be no impressionism.”