French Impressionist art draws crowds to museums like romantic Hollywood films draw moviegoers. So pleasant are the soft brush strokes and pastel palette of Claude Monet and his contemporaries that they could be enjoyed, simply, as eye candy.
But the works of this genre, which evolved in the latter half of the 19th century, are so much more than that. Their power goes beyond depicting scenes and styles of the day. They harness the feelings evoked by visual experience, feelings so well rendered that they have breathtaking impact a century and a half later.
By now, the most notable of their works are familiar to Americans. Works by Monet and his contemporary Pierre Auguste Renoir have been reproduced for the masses. Such familiarity might be expected to bring yawns at the thought of yet another Impressionist exhibit.
Be assured, however, that the show at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, "Impressionists by the Sea," is a must-see. It offers a refreshing take on the art, the artists and the evolution of their technique. It showcases a wealth of material from many prestigious sources, including from the museum's own impressive collection, reminding viewers of the extraordinary treasure in our midst.
The thread that binds this sure-to-be-popular exhibit, which runs through May 11, is the sea, in particular the Normandy coast. The featured artists, not all as well known as Monet, render versions of similar scenes, from the sandy shores of the tony resort of Trouville to the majestic rock formations of Etretat.
Among the most arresting are the scenes of Eugène Isabey. His "Low Tide" is a brooding, foreboding view of fishermen working at the edge of a roiling sea. The danger evoked in this painting contrasts with the high-society gathering in "The Beach at Granville," where the subjects are on holiday, every inch of skin covered in defense from the sun.
Monet is the star of the show, with one entire room to himself. But his work is seen in context, with that of predecessors from whom he drew inspiration and with later artists who were influenced by him.
This show will appeal to a broad audience. Children, too, might appreciate some of the extras — a collection of 19th-century travel books, weighty precursors to today's paperback guides, and historic postcards with photographs from the locales in the paintings. To boot, there is a marvelous display of period beach-going and bathing costumes that connect the art to the actual fashions of the day.
An audio guide to selected paintings can be accessed via cellphone, even after one leaves the museum. This is a wonderful intersection of 21st-century technology and masterworks created in an era before snapshots, air travel and the Speedo.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at