Monday 4 April 2016

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art at the National Museum, Cardiff

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art at Cardiff Museum

Cardiff Museum has a large collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings thanks to the generous bequest of the Davies sisters, the Museum's greatest benefactors.

Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were among the first in Britain to collect Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. The sisters came into their inheritance at the age of twenty five and soon began collecting art. They initially purchased paintings by well-known British artists including J.M.W. Turner and George Romney, but soon bought works by 19th century French artists including such as Jean-Francois Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

In 1912 they acquired their first Impressionist paintings, works by Claude Monet. Over the next decade they amassed one of the most  important collections of modern French art in Britain, often buying directly from the leading Paris dealers.

Although personal, their collection was never private. Their pictures were admired by many visitors to their home, and they generously lent to exhibitions. Gwendoline ceased collecting in the mid-1920s. Margaret continued, later concentrating on modern British artists including Cedric Morris, Kyffin Williams and Terry Frost. Their gifts and bequests transformed the range and quality of Wales' national collection.

As young women they developed a deep love of the visual arts and music and travelled widely in Europe. Both sisters served with the French Red Cross during WWI. Their experiences made them determined to help people whose lives had been shattered by the war. In 1920 they purchased Gregynog Hall, intending to create an arts and crafts community. It housed the Gregynog Press and flourished as a conference and music centre. The sisters championed social, economic, educational and cultural initiatives in Wales and beyond.

We were given information on how the Davis sisters acquired certain paintings and sculptures. I have copied some of this information here, as some of it is very interesting, for instance, the way the National Gallery refused the loan of one of Cezanne's paintings which was eventually and reluctantly accepted by the Tate in 1922.

When we visited, the museum was full of school children, looking at the art, discussing, or drawing.  They were everywhere and it was a real pleasure seeing schools and teachers encouraging an appreciation of art in their students.

Auguste Rodin, The Earth and Moon, 1900 (marble)

Rodin has deliberately left much of the marble in its natural unfinished form to contrast with the nude figures which emerge from it. The sculpture links the origins of human beings to the rawness of nature, reminding us of our own mortality.

Like a number of the Davies sister's sculptures by Rodin, it derives from the Gates of Hell project commissioned in 1881.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1887, (bronze)

The sculpture depicts the story of Paolo Matalesta and Francesca da Rimini told in Dante's Inferno. Stirred by the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, which Paolo holds in his left hand, the couple were discovered and killed by Francesca's husband, Paolo's brother. The two figures enact the moment of passion which sealed their tragic fate.

Paul Cezanne, The Francois Zola Dam, 1879 (oil on canvas)

Cezanne's intricate S-shaped composition leads us through the landscape to the high summit of Mont-Saint-Victoire. The blue waters and grey wall of the dam are nestled into the greens and yellow forms of the sunbaked rocky hillside.

Paul Gauguin was the painting's first owner. Heavily influenced by Cezanne, he copied the landscape in gouache. Later purchased by Gwendoline Davies, she offered it as a loan to the National Gallery who rejected it. Eventually, in 1922, the Tate reluctantly accepted the loan after pressure from important critics such as Roger Fry. He wrote that it was 'one of the greatest of all Cezanne's landscapes'.

Paul Cezanne, Provincial Landscape, 1887, (oil on canvas)

'I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring, like the art in museums'.

The simple woodland scene demonstrates Cezanne's complex artistic theories. Contrasting colours and brushstrokes painted in different directions toy with our sense of space and depth. He wanted to create an illusion of form as well as light.

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Teapot, 1902-06 (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1908 (oil on canvas)

Monet became entranced by the changing reflections and drifting flowers on his lily pond. He concentrated increasingly on the impression of colour and light; his aim was to paint the lilies as if he was seeing them for the first time. Between 1897 and his death he completed several series of waterlilies. Each work appears unique and some of them almost abstract.

Gwendoline Davies purchased three waterlily paintings from Monet's dealer Durand-Ruel in 1913. The sisters had their own lily pond at their house Gregynog, which Margaret Davies also liked to paint.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1905 (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight, 1908 (oil on canvas)

Every evening in late November 1908, Monet and his wife made gondola trips to enjoy 'these splendid sunsets which are unique in the world'. This painting shows a view of the monastery island of San Giorgio, painted from the south-eastern side of Venice. On the right are faintly visible the dome of Santa Maria Salute and the mouth of the Grand Canal.

The work was purchased by Gwendoline Davies in 1912, directly from Monet's exhibition of his Venetian scenes in Paris.

Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore, 1908 (oil on canvas)

Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot, 1890s, (bronze)

This dynamic sculpture captures the figure mid-movement. Her awkward pose adds to the sense of natural spontaneity. Rather than a dancer, as the title might suggest, this nude figure is more likely to relate to Degas' pictures of bathers. He often used sculpture as a way of studying human form and movement but only exhibited one during his lifetime.

Edgar Degas, Dressed Dancer (study), 1879-80, (bronze)

The dancer's childish figure stands off balance, while her features seem distorted and her expression remote. The work was a study for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Degas' only sculpture to be exhibited in his lifetime. He wanted it to look as real as possible and dressed the finished version in a linen corset and tutu.

Auguste Rodin, Head of Gwen John, 1906, (bronze)

Claude Monet, The Palazzo Dario, 1908 (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: Setting Sun (Symphony in Green and Pink), 1892-1904 (oil)

This version of Rouen Cathedral recreates the dazzling glow of sunset. The detail of the gothic architecture begins to disappear in the fading evening light. Monet worked on nine similar views at different times of day. Although he found the subject complex, the following year he returned to paint it a further seventeen times.

looking closer

Auguste Rodin, Eve, 1881 (bronze)

Edouard Manet, Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge, 1870, (oil on canvas)

Manet's rough strokes of brown, black white and grey convey the effect of a bleak winter's day. A true 'impression', the atmospheric effect is far more important than visual detail.

Edouard Manet, Argenteuil, Boat (study), 1874, (oil on canvas)

Three sailing boats sit idly in wait for some of the pleasure-seekers who used to flock to Argenteuil. They form a contrast to the functional laundry-houses behind. A plume of dark smoke from a train alludes to the visitors brought to the area from Paris. Although there are no figures, Manet gives a descriptive impression of modern suburban life.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Parisienne, 1874, (oil on canvas)

This painting of the young actress Henriette Henriot was intended as a character type rather than a portrait. The work was exhibited at the Impressionists' controversial first exhibition in 1874. Youthful, dressed in the latest fashions, with an air of independence, she embodied modern Parisian society. Her coquettish looks, and particularly the vivid blues and rich folds of her dress were effective in drawing the critics' attention.

In 1913, Gwendoline Davies bought the painting from the Grosvenor Gallery in London, which was at the forefront of modern art. At £5,000 it was the most expensive Impressionist work bought by either sister, and it has always been considered one of the most important in their collection.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Conversation, 1912, (oil on canvas)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl in Blue, 1883, (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Boats in Holland, near Zaandam, 1871 (oil on canvas)

Camille Pissarro, Sunset, Port of Rouen, Smoke, 1898 (oil on canvas)

Armand Sequin, Breton Peasant Women at Mass, 1894 (oil on canvas)

The black outlines and flat areas of colour are typical of the group of post-impressionist artists known as the Synthetists or Nabis. They aimed to depict subjects in their simplest form, omitting all irrelevant detail. Their images often implied unseen emotional and spiritual qualities.

There were large groups of  children all over the entrance hall as we were leaving. In this photograph, they had just finished doing some press-ups - a clever way to make them expend some energy before going up to the galleries.

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