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ART REVIEW: "American Impressionism: Paintings from the Phillips Collection," and "In Pursuit of Light and Leisure: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection" 

It's exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to justify taking the time away from the daily anxious rush to enjoy and reflect upon the fragile beauty and fleetingness of this life, in all its sensual richness. We don't merely take peaceful moments and stunning corners of nature for granted - our culture has made us essentially blind to their existence. The American Impressionism exhibit currently on view at the MemorialArtGallery provides us with the opportunity to focus on some of these nearly lost-to-time instances and places, and to discover the hidden moments of meditative escape in our own lives.

The 54 seldom-seen paintings on loan from the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., truly grace the walls of the MAG; each work records not only the precious transience of light, weather, and season, but also celebrates the wealth of unique emotional responses that the natural world produces within each one of us.

Impressionism as a movement and technique was a reaction to the new technology of photography; the public no longer relied on painters to realistically render the world around them. So a technological advancement produced a new genre of visual art, which sought to do what early, sterile photography did not, and the French pioneered a style that would record not only what could be seen, but also what was felt. American artists studying abroad caught the influence of the new style and incorporated it into their own genre to become masters of visual poeticism.

Duncan Phillips, art patron and friend to many of the early American Impressionists, aided the fledgling movement that flowed from the Hudson RiverSchool tradition, which already heartily appreciated the power of a breathtaking landscape.

Entering the space reserved for the exhibition, viewers see the transformation from gallery setting to sun-dappled grove, as theatrical lighting from above casts tree branch shadows on the threshold floor, and sets the tone for a show that focuses largely on the changing influence of light on our impression of the world around us.

The exhibit is effectively educational, as many placards providing information regarding the origin of the movement, as well as the style and concerns of the artists, are dispersed about the space. Viewers learn that one key way in which American Impressionists differed from their French counterparts is their adamant clinging to structure, in the midst of atmospheric haze and fading twilight. This quality is evident in the way that the edges of buildings and bridges remain defined through snowstorms and summer afternoon heat, as in works by Ernest Lawson and Augustus Vincent Tack, whereas Monet would fragment the walls of a cathedral until it disintegrated into the air surrounding it. Nearly achieving this condition is John H. Twachtman's dreamlike "Winter," which suggests the disorienting occurrence of snow blindness due to that world-erasing quality of direct sunlight glaring down and bouncing back up from pure, new snow.

In Lawson's "Spring Night, Harlem River," sky, water, and bridge are comprised of an impossible array of blues, giving us the feeling of standing in a chilly and serene gloaming. Tack's "Winter (New York in Snow)" is a recently familiar scene of city buildings barely peeking out from behind flying particles, and the viewer can feel the frigid space between. Tack's other works of note are stark landscapes with equally effective communication of light and temperature sensation. In "Windswept (Snow Picture, Leyden)," a spare, snowy peak crests in a subtly rose sky. The shifting, shimmering light from above is reflected on the snow below, which is crystalline and every color except white. These painters were experts at showing the public how to identify a multitude of hues present within the colors that we think we're seeing at a glance. The snow in this painting will change the way you see winter, and forever after cause the desire to play hide and seek with nature's Technicolored coat of elements.

Tack's "Deerfield, Spring Landscape" breathes early morning, moisture-laden air out at the viewer, who is quickly caught up in the pale and delicately wistful emotion the painting evokes. A similar feeling results from gazing at the quietly powerful, hesitant light in George Inness' "Gray Day, Goochland".

In an entirely different emotional vein, Childe Hassam's "Washington Arch, Spring" recalls French Impressionist lightheartedness, in its freshness and cheerfully bustling activity. The line of trees beneath the solid, anchoring archway explodes skyward with seasonal energy. Shifting one season more, John H. Twachtman's "Summer" depicts the artist's Connecticut house partially hidden in highly textured, secluding hills, and employs a range of greens that distinguish the heat in the exposed field from the cool relief under the shade.

Of the few interior portrayals, two are by the women artists represented in the show. "Home Lessons" by Lilian Wescott Hale and "A Rainy Day" by Helen Turner quietly focus on domestic routine, in faded, murky color, with the occasional bright area of clean light for contrast. Gifford Beal's "Center Ring" couldn't differ more; he drew his inspiration for the loud and manically colored scene from the circus, and like Toulouse-Lautrec, used bright color and quick brushwork to replicate the buzzing excitement of the setting.

Beal also created the sole representation of political concern, "On the Hudson at Newburgh," in which a woman and her children watch a troupe of receding American soldiers preparing to depart at the beginning of World War I. The tone of the epic piece is celebratory and full of heroic romance and confidence.

The innermost room of the show space is reserved for the MAG's own collection of American Impressionist paintings, which strongly holds its own against the Phillips Collection. Among the impressive contents of the room is Paul Dougherty's "Coast of Cornwall near St. Ives," in which the dramatic fading light illuminates the crashing waves; with a bit of imagination, the rush and retreat of the water is audible. Across the room is W. Elmer Schofield's "Devon Countryside," which shows a summery path crisscrossed with tree branch shadow, creating a tangled pattern that our eyes must maneuver with the mesmerized focus required by a maze.

Arguably the most effective Impressionist painting is "Landscape" by Van Dearing Perrine, in which two figures play in an ever-changing atmosphere of barely solid trees and failing sunlight. The tiny scene resembles a minds-eye childhood memory with startling accuracy: it is indefinite, shifting, simple, and happy.

While in the building, don't miss the Lockhart Gallery's display of the MAG's collection of paintings, prints, and drawings by European Impressionists. Familiar names abound: Renoir's "The Pond at Chaville" is intensely colored, but feathery in texture and drifts softly as a dream; Degas' "Dancers" captures the grace of the working class admired by rich patrons; and Monet's "Towing a Boat, Honfleur" is a surprisingly cohesive study of dusky tranquility.

The contemporary relevance of this show of paintings from centuries ago is uncomplicated: it is the reminder to slow down and look around. We are the perceivers of the world, and should fill up our consciousness not only with the drama of the tragedies that sweep the globe on a daily basis, but also with the celebration of the subtle ache in the heart stirred up by the gentle awakening of the fields on a freezing, dewy spring morning, or the way an overcast autumn sky will scatter the sunlight and bring out the most vibrant hues in the breathing earth, the brick, and the pavements.

American Impressionism: Paintings from the Phillips Collection

Through June 15

In Pursuit of Light and Leisure: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection

Through June 29

MemorialArtGallery, 500 University Ave.


Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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