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PRINT May 2004

Vault

“Turner, Whistler, Monet”

WITH ITS AMBITIOUS “TURNER, WHISTLER, Monet: Impressionist Visions” opening next month, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, in conjunction with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and Tate Britain, joins recent curatorial attempts to reshuffle the deck of nineteenth-century art. Rather than conform to the monographic blockbuster or utilize neat categories like Romanticism, realism, Impressionism, or symbolism to provide shape and substance, these exhibitions seek out new relationships among works and artists that bridge temporal or national boundaries. Such was the case, for example, with “Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism,” a traveling show (it ended last fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) that successfully charted exchanges between French and English art from 1820 to 1840. Lead curator Patrick Noon argued for a greatly expanded conception of Romanticism and demonstrated the links, both formal and iconographic, uniting Britain and France during the headiest years of the movement.

The Toronto show comprises one hundred paintings, watercolors, pastels, and prints by Turner, Whistler, and Monet and claims to “provide the first opportunity to explore the extraordinary artistic dialogue that takes place between their works.” This reciprocation is embedded in both themes and visual styles, and, once more, the fruitful exchange of ideas between Britain and France in the construction of artistic movements—here, Impressionism and symbolism—is insisted on.

Yet as so often happens with exhibitions purporting to show new “influences” and “interactions,” difference, rather than similarity, is foregrounded once the works are considered all together. Take, for instance, the pairing of Monet and Turner: Even though Monet admired the older artist, it is Harold Bloom’s ever-handy “misprision” that dominates in a comparison of Turner’s Dogano, San Giorgio, 1842, and Monet’s Thames Below Westminster, ca. 1871. The British artist, despite his daring use of evanescent glazes and misty dissolves, clearly belongs to the traditional past. Rain, Steam, and Speed, 1844, evinces the same technique: Turner effectively captures the approach of a railroad train with the same perspective devices as those used by Claude Lorrain in the seventeenth century. Although Turner has rendered a phantasmagoric impression of the modern age, he has conceived its illusion of depth by way of the conventional diminishing warmth of color and solidity.

None of this traditional illusionism for Monet! While the French artist’s simplified strokes of relatively colorless paint insist on the concrete facts of immediate vision, they also reiterate the materiality of the canvas’s surface rather than dissolve it into a transparent pane of glass. As for the cosmopolitan Whistler, his Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, ca. 1872–75, forewarns, by its very title, that vulgar illusionism is out of the picture. Instead, he constructs a near-abstract yet still recognizable “musical” version of his subject; the dark silhouette of the bridge rises austerely above a vista of fading blues, dying pinks, and dissolving violets. In an 1877 review, Henry James said of the artist’s canvases, “It may be a narrow point of view, but to be interesting it seems to me that a picture should have some relation to life as well as to painting. Mr. Whistler’s experiments have no relation whatever to life; they have only a relation to painting.” It seems unlikely that James would have said this about a Turner.

“Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions” will be on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, June 12–Sept. 12; Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Oct. 15–Jan. 17, 2005; Tate Britain, London, Feb. 12, 2005–May 15, 2005.

Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.