Mount an impressionism show, and they will come. The light-dappled paintings produced by the artists of this 19th-century French movement and their stylistic offspring have become a safety net for museums. Beloved by the public, they are guaranteed to boost attendance and revenues from ticket sales, catalogs and gift-shop merchandise. As a result, impressionism exhibitions have become predictable, all-too-regular fixtures on museum calendars to the exclusion of more challenging art.
This season alone has witnessed "Eugene Boudin," on view at the National Gallery; "Camille Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape" at the Baltimore Museum of Art; proto-impressionist landscapes by Gustave Courbet at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; and, at the Phillips Collection, the newly opened "American Impressionism," to be followed by "Impressionists by the Sea" in October.
It may be tame, tired and overexposed, but impressionism is a sure bet for attracting the crowds. "Any time you're putting together your budget, you anticipate more for this kind of exhibit as opposed to contemporary art where there isn't the same level of interest," says Jay Gates, outgoing director of the Phillips.
A survey of 2006 museum attendance numbers by the Art Newspaper bears him out, revealing that shows on the works of Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Pierre Bonnard and Claude Monet were among the 25 most visited exhibitions worldwide.
"In our experience, impressionist exhibitions have ahuge impact on attendance and membership," says spokeswoman Anne Mannix of the Baltimore Museum of Art.The museum's 2005 "Monet in London" show, for example, drew nearly four times the number of visitors as an exhibit of contemporary photographic works held the same year.
With its cheerful color palette and inoffensive subject matter, it's easy to understand why impressionism is so popular among the museum-viewing public. "It's not too old-fashioned or too modern," says Katherine Rothkopf, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It feels fresher than works from the early 19th century and not as threatening as contemporary art."
Technically intriguing in its visible brush strokes, impressionism packs visual punch but asks very little intellectually of the viewer. "It's the kind of art that's immediately accessible. You don't have to know obscure mythology or to read the Bible to understand impressionist paintings," says Kimberly Jones, the National Gallery's associate curator of French paintings. "You don't have to have any explanatory text."
Like a steady diet of sweets, constant exposure to impressionism's candy-colored world can leave you feeling depleted of nutrients and yearning for the gravy-brown gravitas of a Rembrandt. It also can inure you to the beauty and once-shocking radicalism of these late 19th-century works, which outraged the world when they were first shown. When the same sunlit scenes of meadows and beaches, and paintings like them, are shown over and over again, it's hard to see them with fresh eyes.
Given the continual stream of impressionism shows, is there anything left to be revealed? "Finding something new to say about these artists is a challenge," admits Ms. Rothkopf, who organized the recent Pissarro show. Impressionism is so overexposed that museums are being forced to narrow the focus to a single theme, a technique or a lesser known artist of the movement in order to attract the public with an exhibit that feels fresh.
"People are smarter now," Ms. Jones says. "They aren't going to rush to see an impressionism exhibit if it's not a good show based on scholarship."
If there is any trend in recent showings of impressionist works, she and others say, it is a focus on technique. "The Unknown Monet," which just closed at London's Royal Academy of Arts,for example, included the artist's preparatory drawings for his seemingly spontaneous paintings. "Our romantic notion of impressionists is that they created all their paintings outside in a short period of time," Ms. Rothkopf says, "but they were much more methodical and took a long time to make them. Some of their paintings were finished in the studio."
Strictly speaking, impressionism covers the years from the rebellious artists' first show outside the Salon in 1874 to their last in 1886. But the term is so loosely applied — encompassing artistic developments before and after those years — as to lose much of its meaning. "Impressionism is this never-ending, expanding thing," Ms. Jones says.
Artists such as Monet, Degas and Renoir have become such a popular brand that their names often are applied to exhibitions having little to do with impressionism so as to appeal to a larger audience. "Monet in London," for example, featured many more works by James McNeill Whistler and his circle than paintings by the Frenchman. Ms. Jones says she has included Monet as part of the title for a 2008 National Gallery show on French artists who sketched in the forests of Fontainbleau outside Paris, though it will include just six pieces by Monet out of about 100 artworks.
Impressionism was the culmination of a long stylistic and technical evolution born of tumultuous times, but few exhibits devoted to the movement are willing to do the historical legwork needed to recapture the drama and stakes involved in this aesthetic struggle.
Much of the museum focus has shifted away from the collective movement and its competing visions to works by individual artists and their followers that typically are shown in a vacuum. The formal aspects of impressionism — all the pretty daubing and dabbing — are what visitors crave, not its historical underpinnings.
Instead of pandering to the public with this easy sell, our museums should more strongly commit to their educational mission of revealing new and underappreciated aspects of art history. More variations on the played-out world of impressionism only consume precious resources for loans and installations that could be put to better use for more imaginative exhibits.