A new exhibition, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art examines the relationship between landscape and national identity. There are more than 100 paintings and photographs, from 1850 to 1880, including works by artists such as Manet, Monet and Le Gray, as well as artists well-known at the time but not today.
Photographers and painters construct "an idea of nation"
The exhibition was co-curated by Simon Kelly, of the Saint Louis Art Museum, and April Watson, of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, who says the seven sections of the exhibition are structured like a journey through France.
"Visitors start in Paris," says Watson, associate curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins. "They move through railroads and factories, monuments, into the countryside, and they end up at the sea."
Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, previously served as associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins. It was around this time, he says, that he started thinking about the exhibition.
"I was interested in the way that landscape painters in the 19th century in France really focused on their own country, and traveling around and discovering their country," says Kelly. "And the way in which, in doing that, they really constructed a sense of what the nation meant.
"I started to speak to April (Watson) about this, and realized how many connections there were with photography, and photographers doing the same kind of thing."
Interview Highlights: April Watson and Simon Kelly
On the selection process
"In terms of the photographs, I think we have 72 photographs total, and about half of those are actually in the Nelson-Atkins collection," says Watson. "The rest are loans, some from private lenders, but others from the major institutions, like the Art Institute, the Getty, the Met, MFA Houston."
"There's been a lot of travel to a range of American museums on both coasts, and around the country, also travel to France," says Kelly. "I'm really just searching out pieces which fitted the exhibition theme. We have some big name painters in the show - we have Monet, we have Renoir, we have Manet, we have Pissarro. But it was also important for me to include artists who aren't so well-known today, but at the time were important."
On changes in France, from 1850 to 1880
"This is a moment when history is still very important in France, and France's monuments are being celebrated and restored," says Kelly. "But as a kind of counterpoint to that, you're seeing the modernization of France. And that's reflected particularly in the railroad, which develops this network around France at that time. That, in turn, leads to further exploration of the country because you're finding painters and photographers using the railroad to discover France."
On intersections between photography and painting
"It's been debated on and off over the years, the degree to which photography sort of liberated painters from having to paint in perhaps a more 'realistic' way," says Watson. "In many cases, particularly many of the really great photographers, someone like Gustave Le Gray, he was actually trained as a painter. And what you'll see in his photographs are something that is very much derived from a Romantic tradition. And, in fact, some of the photographs are more romantic in the way that they appear than in the way the painters were depicting it."
"It's a complicated thing to say that photography changed the nature of painting," she adds. We're not, in this exhibition, emphasizing a one-to-one influence by any means. We're really more looking at the visual resonances between the painters and photographers, and kind of looking at the fact that they were all going to photograph or paint similar motifs or themes."
"The most important thing for both of us was to look at the visual culture of the period and think about the ways in which painting and photography were coming together to kind of underpin that culture, and particularly, develop this idea of nation which is at the center of this exhibition," says Kelly.
Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, October 19, 2013 - February 9, 2014 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Curators' talk takes place on 2 p.m., Saturday, October 19, in Atkins Auditorium.
The exhibition travels to the Saint Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Mo. March 16 - July 6, 2014.