Arts and Culture

Shani Gilchrist



Take a walk through the world of Impressionism at the Columbia Museum of Art

Posted 1/24/2013 2:09:00 PM

Do you remember the first time you encountered a painting by Claude Monet? My first face-to-face encounter was on a class trip to a museum in Chicago. We were actually there to see an exhibition of works by Paul Gauguin but were able to peruse the other galleries, as well. I was eight years old, but I was thrilled from my ponytails to my toes.


I felt the same way years later when I realized that the Columbia Museum of Art had Monet’s “The Seine at Giverny” in its permanent collection, and I was able to spend some time gazing at the painting in the beautiful galleries. I couldn’t get enough.

Now there’s even more to take in as the museum gives visitors a rare chance to see major Impressionist works from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis.

“Impressionism From Monet to Matisse” is a comprehensive collection of 55 works including paintings, pastels and watercolors from the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and of course Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

“What’s rare about them is that the board of the Dixon only recently allowed them to travel,” said Columbia Museum of Art Executive Director Karen Brosius. “So when we heard about this opportunity we grabbed it and said, ‘Wow, this would be such a treat for the people of South Carolina and the region.’”

The show takes museum visitors through the various stages of the Impressionist movement, which began with a group of artists whose work was routinely rejected by the jury of the Salon de Paris, which was the arbiter of artistic taste at the time. Frustrated, the men would meet at the Café Guerbois to discuss their work and techniques. Later, as the Impressionist movement gained steam, paintings would begin to show more arbitrary use of colors and real-life subject matter than their “academic” counterparts.

“There’s a lot of Impressionism,” chief curator Will South said of the exhibition, “but there’s also a lot of 19th century academic French paintings by artists who knew the Impressionists… were friends of theirs… but painted slightly differently.”

Academic paintings focused on still life and detailed traditionalism — work that would have been accepted by the standards of the Salon de Paris — is on view, such as Henri Fantin-Latour’s Still Life of 1869. The painting is of a simple and elegant case of white flowers behind a bowl of mixed fruit. The piece is considered unpretentious and refined compared to the “radical” brush strokes and displays of Renoir and, later, Matisse. Pieces by Gauguin and Georges Braque are on view to illustrate the ways in which the Impressionist changed the European art world forever.

Did I go off on a bit of a tangent there? That is exactly what such an exhibition will do to you. Each painting in the show was selected for a distinct purpose.

“We focused on Monet to Matisse because we felt that was really the core of telling the story,” Brosius said. “And the story is all about what makes an Impressionist painting ‘Impressionist.’”

This type of focus also makes the show perfect for those who don’t know much about the subject. Not only does the Dixon collection walk you through the works that led to and were part of the Impressionist movement, it shows how it influenced later artists who created more modern pieces. The Impressionists are even credited with laying some of the groundwork for what would one day be the Cubist movement, which was where Pablo Picasso placed his concentration.

When you go you’ll end up thinking about and discussing the varied styles and subjects for days to come. After you’ve taken a tour, head across the street to Hampton Street Vineyard or Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse to have a bite to eat and talk about what you saw there. If you take your children, ice cream might be in order afterwards down at Paradise Ice on Columbia's Main Street.

The exhibit is open through April 21. Admission to the exhibition is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and military, and $5 for students older than five. Adult group tours are available at $12 per person and can be reserved by emailing Members of the Columbia Museum of Art are admitted free. For more information, please visit