There’s a flat out marvelous exhibition of the Impressionists in London at the Petit Palais. My friend (Memphis urban sketcher and now a denizen of Paris) has a dual membership and kindly took me — and then left me to make my way at the glacial speed I travel through museums. Double kindness.
I loved the show not only for the art but also for the history. It centers around the end of the Franco Prussian war when Paris was first under siege and then in the hands of rebels for a while. Needless to say, no one much buys art under dire, wartime circumstances, so a number of French artists (and citizens) headed for London for a while, and a few stayed permanently. It was good to read how the early arrivals assisted later comers, introducing them to patrons and getting them teaching jobs. There is such press about how cutthroat the art world is, and likely there are aspects of that in the high market places, but I have found such a supportive and warm environment in Memphis with people sharing opportunities and rooting each other on. It felt good to learn about this group.
There were a number of gorgeous things in the show. There was one small room of three exquisite Whistler nocturnes, and there were many truly lovely works on paper (which I’m always excited to see), both watercolors and prints. I did a copy of one understated portrait etching by Legros with the lightest and most delicate of horizontal lines, just a bit varied, as the background. He also left the shirt almost completely white, except for a few lines, bringing all the attention to the face. The grey of the patterned background played nicely against the open space and against the strong detail of the features.
But what truly gobsmacked me was the five Monet renditions of the Houses of Parliament gathered together for this show. Usually they are scattered across continents. Monet did them all from the same vantage point, the window of his room in the Savoy Hotel. As an artist, that is a stroke of both luck and genius, to be able to set up and paint from the ease of your room. He had been unsuccessful when he first went (as a refugee from the war), and two decades later, he wanted to return and show London what he could do. I loved that as well.
I always look forward to spending time with Monet’s five versions of Rouen Cathedral at the Orsay, and seeing these together was a similar experience. I tried to sketch them, but my small and dirty travel watercolor palette didn’t handle the pinks and yellows well. It was still a good exercise for me to sit and study them and truly see the variations and differences. Even when a drawing doens’t turn out as you had hoped (which is often, even for professionals), you learn a lot from the doing of it.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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