Much like the Denver Art Museum's Becoming Van Gogh told the story of Vincent's extensive personal studies toward artistic virtuosity, its newest show, Passport to Paris, illustrates how French art shifted and how Impressionism was born. We take for granted that any of this happened, but especially Impressionism, which we automatically assume was as welcome in its own time as it is now. Indeed, it was far more radical than we realize.
Passport is actually three exhibits: Court to Café and Drawing Room, curated by associate curator of painting and sculpture Angelica Daneo, and Nature as Muse by Christoph Heinrich, who holds the title of Frederick and Jan Mayer director. The DAM borrowed from Dr. Esmond Bradley Martin, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum to put on these shows, as well as from the private collection of Frederic C. Hamilton, whose jaw-dropping Impressionist holdings have never been shown together, and only rarely individually before now.
The DAM clearly aimed for an immersive experience here, even if it's not as enveloping as, say, Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, which was less museum than atelier. However, if you, like me, wondered how you could go from the fluffy, blushing, painterly realm of Boucher to the Classical flavor of Napoleonic-era master David to the prismatic, quivering vividness of Manet or Pissarro, here's your answer.
Court and Nature are chronological shows that take you through the development of these artistic movements. The former guides visitors through four centuries of French art, beginning in the lavish courts of Louis XIV, through the French Revolution, through the rebirth of Paris in the mid-19th century. This is where Nature zooms in, and unfolds the story of the Impressionists.
Many forces shaped the movement — a revamped Paris with large, outdoor public arenas with boulevards, fountains and parks; oil paint manufactured in tubes; a taste for modernity — but Heinrich best describes the spirit of it in a small winter scene by Pissarro, the first Impressionist.
The work, from the DAM collection, isn't set anywhere glamorous, just a farmhouse on a cold, bleak day. But Pissarro sees much more: "He's treating this as a gem and he's seeing all the colors of the light."
Where Pissarro and his ilk devoted themselves to the very much here-and-now of their surroundings, warts and all, their predecessors looked to the unblemished past for inspiration. To build a picture of life in the 1600s and 1700s, the DAM outfits its galleries with period music and the decorative arts of the time (right down to the wallpaper). In sharp contrast to the Impressionists stomping out to the parks, laden with easel, paint and canvas, the elite of the past traveled via sedan, carried by men above the mucky streets of Paris. The sedan on display in Court sits among the swirling, ornate furniture and paintings of the upper classes done with exacting detail and a distinctly unburdened mood.
Drawing Room ought not be forgotten either. It's a quiet little space off to the side of Court, dimmed to protect its bounty: works on paper. Here, you can get up close and personal with a drawing by a teenage Toulouse-Lautrec or the stunning sketches of Watteau. Drawings are intimate and immediate, Daneo says; you can see the raw skill that knows how to make a confident line or mark a perfect gesture. How do you describe that fleeting look between confidants? That particular sway of a woman's arm? That which turns a face into a likeness?
Again, here's your answer.