A Walk through “Impressionist France: Visions of a Nation from Le Gray to Monet”

Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926; Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874; oil on canvas; 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 inches; Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Cat. 1050

Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926; Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874; oil on canvas; 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 inches; Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Cat. 1050

Just in time for the 250th anniversary of St. Louis’ founding as a French city, 120 French paintings and photographs from 37 institutions around America and Europe now line the walls of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s (SLAM) East Building. Impressionist France: Visions of a Nation from Le Gray to Monet is the first exhibition to visit the museum’s East Building since its opening last June.

Curators Simon Kelly and April M. Watson spent nearly six years gathering artwork for their exhibition, hoping to put on a show that would resonate both nationally and internationally. Kelly, curator of SLAM’s modern and contemporary art since 2010, met Watson in 2007 during his stay at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, where Watson currently curates all photography. 

“I think it’s important for me — coming from England — to have a show that will have, or that I hope will have, some kind of international resonance,” said Kelly. “It’s important for St. Louis as a city to have that.”

Still, one might wonder why the two curators chose St. Louis as the second location for their exhibition, which first debuted at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. 

“This is the 250th anniversary of St. Louis’ founding as a French city, so the fact that we’re exploring France and what France means fits in really nicely,” said Kelly. “Beyond that, there are certain pieces within the exhibition that specifically speak to St. Louis. 

“For example, we have two paintings by the impressionist Frédéric Bazille, which show a town on the south coast of France called Aigues-Mortes. That town was founded by Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the 13th century, as a place from which he could launch his crusades.” 

Frédéric Bazille, French, 1841–1870; The Ramparts at Aigues-Mortes, 1867; oil on canvas; 23 5/8 x 39 3/8 inches; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.1 Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Frédéric Bazille, French, 1841–1870; The Ramparts at Aigues-Mortes, 1867; oil on canvas; 23 5/8 x 39 3/8 inches; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.1 Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

But that wasn’t the only connection Kelly made between St. Louis and the Impressionist France exhibition. When asked if there were any connection between the exhibition and Forest Park in particular, Kelly brought up the section on forests and rivers, which includes work from Théodore Rousseau, Gustave Doré and Gustave Le Gray. Nearly every artist in this section of the exhibition deals in some way with forests.

“I think, generally, what trees mean is something we explored,” said Kelly. “The oak is the national symbol of France. Other countries also claim it as their symbol, so that’s certainly not unique to France, but I think we thought a lot about what nature means. These are not just pretty pictures. They have meaning.”

Forests and rivers aside, Impressionist France contains six more sections, all of which present their own unique view of 19th-century France. From “Paris and the Modern Cityscape” to “Mountains” and “Marine Views,” there is no monotony here. 

When asked which paintings St. Louis was most lucky to see at this exhibition, Kelly was quick to emphasize the great group of Claude Monet works, some of which are on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum. “Boulevard des Capucines,” “Regatta at Sainte-Adresse” and “Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil” are the works Kelly mentioned — all paintings that are best viewed up close.

It’s worth noting that the exhibition features more than just paintings and photographs (not that paintings and photographs aren’t enough). 

The first gallery features a large, wooden camera and tripod. Watson noted the heavy weight of the equipment, explaining that French photographers during the 19th century often traveled with these large cameras to capture landmarks and unchartered territory — expeditions the government commissioned. Auguste-Rosalie Bisson hauled a similar camera up to the 15,771-foot peak of Mont Blanc in 1861.

Other 19th-century artifacts include an assortment of paintbrushes, a smudging tool and shell scraper from S&J Fuller’s watercolor box, a folding paint easel and a group of liquid watercolor tubes. 

Knowing what tools the artists had available during their time adds more depth to the viewing experience. In a world full of smartphones equipped with high-quality cameras and Instagram, it’s easy to forget that a photographer during the 19th century traveled with wagonloads of camera equipment and portable dark rooms. Their photos required patience, perseverance and hard work.  

Now for a personal recommendation: some of the exhibition’s most captivating works are the photographs of Gustave Le Gray. See these pictures. They are truly original. 

Gustave Le Gray, French, 1820–1884; Group of Ships Departing Le Havre, c.1856; albumen print from collodion glass negative; 12 1/8 x 16 inches; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2007.21.18 Photo: John Lamberton

Gustave Le Gray, French, 1820–1884; Group of Ships Departing Le Havre, c.1856; albumen print from collodion glass negative; 12 1/8 x 16 inches; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2007.21.18 Photo: John Lamberton

“Group of Ships Departing Le Havre,” in particular, is one of the best known of Le Gray’s images. The way these ships are backlit leaving the harbor really creates a sense of mystery and adventure. Large white and grey clouds swirl above. It is unclear whether these clouds are looming or leaving. Either way, the ships are heading toward them. 

Kelly expressed great admiration for Le Gray’s work, noting that the 19th-century photographer has achieved “a level of detail in his photographs that, arguably, has never been matched.” He also emphasized Le Gray’s use of color. “These are not black-and-white photographs,” Kelly said. “He’s experimenting with color, too, to create these sort of greenish tints. The colors are really important to these images.”

Impressionist France: Visions of a Nation from Le Gray to Monet will be on display until July 6. Visit http://www.slam.org/France/about.php for more information, including a video interview with Simon Kelly and his co-curator.