One of the standout works in “The Impressionist’s Eye,” the latest in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s series of shows highlighting works from its own collection, is a painting on paper by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that hasn’t been shown at the museum since 1956.
At the Nouveau Cirque: The Dancer and the Five Stiff Shirts (1892) is executed in watercolor, opaque watercolor, and oil paint and is a large-format poster size. Nevertheless, it feels more like a drawing or even a sketch. It shows an elegantly dressed and hatted woman seen from the rear, watching a dancer in a pink gown bending farther backward than seems possible. Behind the dancer, rendered as caricatures, five blue-suited men look on.
Even though one knows this cannot be the case, one feels the artist rendered the scene spontaneously, right on the spot and in the moment. You see his line dancing and swirling through the spectator’s puffy sleeves and explosive millinery, somewhat more gracefully than the dancer herself. The colors appear casually applied, at times almost scribbled in, yet it’s a wonderful palette, subtler than many of the artist’s famous posters.
The same artist’s At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1889-90), which is shown nearby and is almost always on display at the museum, is probably a finer, more finished work. It’s also a social document that shows notable Parisians, and it hung for years above the bar at the famous Montmartre cabaret. But the Nouveau Cirque painting looks free and experimental, loaded with panache, qualities that can escape our notice in the most familiar and established impressionist masterpieces.
Oh, and those five stiff-backed guys in blue. They aren’t spectators, but actors who are part of the performance, playing Japanese officials.
Japan’s influence on European art in the mid to late 19th century is a subtle theme of this show of about 80 impressionist and post-impressionist works, including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, and sculptures. This is also the era that rediscovered Notre Dame and built many of its most familiar elements — including the spire that burst into flame and collapsed in Monday’s ruinous fire as the world looked on in grief.
Though many of the oils will be familiar to museumgoers, works on paper are shown far more rarely to prevent damage from light. In fact, some of the most striking pieces in the show, such as Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 ink-and-pencil drawing of haystacks, will be on display only until June 18, when they will be replaced with other works on paper, including a Van Gogh landscape and a subtle, smudgelike Georges Seurat crayon drawing that is a study for his masterpiece La Grande Jatte.
Lautrec, like Mary Cassatt and several other impressionists, was interested in Japanese woodblock prints, as were such other artists as Claude Monet, who built a Japanese-style bridge in his waterlily garden then painted the scene repeatedly — the Art Museum owns three versions. Japanese influences were regularly incorporated into impressionist art.
The Japanese connection is enhanced by a companion exhibition, “Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle” which features more than 100 woodcut prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who is sometimes called the last master of that medium, and who was working at the same time as the impressionists.
We are used to seeing the impressionists as symptoms of modernity, with their images of middle-class leisure, popular entertainment, and locomotives roaring through Arcadian landscapes. The style is post-realistic but based in new discoveries in optics and psychology. Japan modernized even more radically during that time, changing from a feudal society to a powerful industrial nation state almost overnight.
The book Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which accompanies “The Impressionist’s Eye” and which was written by its curator, Jennifer A. Thompson, adds yet another center of modernization to the mix — Philadelphia itself.
Impressionism came to this city through the Cassatt family; Mary’s brother headed the Pennsylvania Railroad. Philadelphians were early and enthusiastic buyers of this work, using money from coal and gas extraction and all sorts of manufacturing.
And though this goes unacknowledged in the show, the impressionist moment was also the high tide of colonialism. At the time when Lautrec was hanging out at the Moulin Rouge, France was active in Indochina, promoting opium addiction there to generate revenue. The world is connected, though pictures of long summer afternoons make that possible to forget.
No matter, there is value in a show like “The Impressionist’s Eye,” if only because it takes works that are so familiar they seem to be part of the furniture and shows them in a completely different light.
Georges Seurat’s Moored Boats and Trees (1890), a very small oil about the size of a cigar-box top, was a real eye-opener for me. Perhaps that’s because the artist seems to be using larger points of paint than usual, which highlights the presence of bright, unexpected colors.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Great Bathers (1884-7) has a new look after an extensive effort to deal with cracking of the paint and bowing of the canvas. Renoir viewed the painting, in which female nudes painted in an almost classical style cavort in an impressionist landscape, as a possible masterpiece. Renewed, the painting looks cheesier than ever to me, but there are those who love it. Taking good care of an important if polarizing work is one reason museums exist.
Seeing the Yoshitoshi show after “The Impressionist’s Eye” is exhausting. Each of the 100 or so prints is extremely complex, and many of them refer to literary works or historical events that I confess are not very familiar to me. Nevertheless, this show is also energizing.
The woodblock print was a popular art, and the prints were created and sold widely in series that had titles like “The Barometer of Emotions,” “A Collection of Desires,” “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts,” and the group that forms the climax of the show, “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon.” They have much in common with comic book art.
Early in his career, Yoshitoshi was famed for his violent scenes of battle, and in works like Reisei Hangan Takatoyo Dying of Disembowelment (1866) he even used a special red ink to make the warrior’s blood seem to stain the page.
Later works are more controlled and poetic, and far less violent, but they are still filled with energy — and terrifying ghosts. Yoshitoshi believed in ghosts, and he did his best to make you believe in them, too.
The Impressionist’s Eye and Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle