The 19th century was a period of continuous flux in which industrialization, commodification and urbanization fundamentally transformed everyday experience. In France especially these changes found resonance in the visual arts. As the Salon’s influence declined and private galleries and dealers proliferated, artists found themselves less reliant on official patronage and freer to experiment with new subjects and new aesthetics. “The Impressionist Line from Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec: Drawings and Prints from the Clark” reveals the ways in which graphic media were employed by artists—Impressionists, Realists, Post-Impressionists and academic artists also—to embrace or reject modernity. Organized collaboratively by the Frick Collection and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the exhibition includes 58 works that span the second half of the 19th century, and focuses on the distinct properties of drawings and prints as tools of formal innovation and vehicles for public engagement.
“The Impressionist Line” opens with Edgar Degas’ drawing, Studies of the Borghese Gladiator (ca. 1853-56), which the young Degas sketched from antique sculpture at the Louvre as students had done for generations, documenting the same figure from multiple perspectives in order to hone the technical skills required for painting. Seen in the context of his later Impressionist works, such as the two charcoals of bathing women included here, the Louvre study makes clear how drawing’s traditional functions—in this case the delineation of the nude body—persisted even as artists pushed toward radical new approaches.
In its focus on the role of drawing as the universal starting point for all 19th-century artists, the exhibition upsets the common distinctions between movements, genres and hierarchies. It returns artists we now think of as less canonical or even antithetical to the development of modern art to their proper place within the flow of ideas and forms. The idealized polish seen in a study of a woman’s head by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (ca. 1865) suggests that the stiff classicism of his paintings was in fact a critical step toward the simplification and abstraction that would typify Post-Impressionism. The academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose lolling pseudo-classical nudes are often cited as everything Impressionism rebelled against, is represented by a graphite Study of Venus for “Apollo and the Muses in Olympus” (ca. 1867). Bouguereau’s idealized nude served as a study in proportion and form for subsequent works, which means it functioned exactly like Degas’ Gladiator study, despite the divergent paths these two artists chose to take.
If drawing was the time-honored basis of all artistic practices in the second half of the 19th century, printmaking had suddenly come to be understood as a vehicle for experimentation as well a means of engaging the broader public and a nascent art market. Several lithographs from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Elles series (1896) combine the usual drawn line of lithography with spatters of ink to create striking tonal effects. In 12 images, the portfolio presents episodes from the surprisingly banal lives of Parisian prostitutes as they sleep, bathe and wait for clients. The flat planes of vivid color used for the prints represented the forefront of both chromolithographic technology and vanguard style at the time. In spite of its unorthodox technique and subject matter, however, the suite was produced specifically for collectors who were clients of Toulouse-Lautrec’s publisher and business partner in the venture, Gustave Pellet. The publisher went so far as to design a watermark for the prints’ paper displaying his initials and the artist’s. Such interweaving of formal inventiveness and deliberate entrepreneurship was characteristic of the moment.
The new printmaking was something quite distinct from the reproductive engraving through which painters had long reproduced their work. Paul Gauguin created his Volpini Suite specifically to build his reputation within the artistic community of fin-de-siècle Paris, but he did so through zincography (a variant of lithography that used a zinc plate rather than a stone), which allowed him to draw the images directly, as if on paper. Several of the prints directly reprise prior paintings, but despite this deliberate approach to collectors, works such as Human Misery (1889) display the artist’s fascination with specific, distinct qualities of printmaking. Gauguin’s sparse, linear drawing highlights the unusual, bright yellow paper (likely an allusion to the time Gauguin spent with Vincent van Gogh), which resonates with the muddy sanguine ink. These formal qualities accentuate the tension of the work’s subject, meant to recall Adam and Eve before the Tree of Knowledge. The borders that surround the images result from Gauguin’s decision not to fully clean the zinc plate before printing; it frames the image but also foregrounds the technical process that produced it.
Other artists were still more deliberately inventive with print techniques. An artist’s proof of Camille Pissarro’s Peasant Women Weeding the Grass (ca. 1894) shows a subject typical for the artist: French peasants at work cooperatively in an agrarian idyll. In its bright, almost acrid color, the work evokes Pissarro’s paintings. The notes written on the margins of the proof, including a lengthy description of color to be used, reveal the complexity of the process and the artist’s strategic exploitation of etching effects and ink tonalities. At the same time, Pissarro—a committed anarchist—recognized that prints conformed more readily than painting to his ideals; it offered potential as an affordable and democratic means to reach a wider public with didactic, original works of art. As artists had begun to do during these years, Pissarro signed his name prominently in pencil in the margin, designating the print as original and unique.
Through works like these, “The Impressionist Line” charts the dramatic evolution of art over a critical half-century. Drawing is revealed as the thread that ties the most radical innovations of Paul Cézanne to the stodgiest academic sketches of Bouguereau, and printmaking is asserted as a critical site of experimentation and social attentiveness. Most importantly, the exhibition invites reconsideration of the familiar narrative of modern art’s rise as told through painting.
The exhibition was accompanied by the catalogue, The Impressionist Line from Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec: Drawings and Prints from the Clark , edited by Jay A. Clarke with essays by Mary Weaver Chapin, Jay A. Clarke, Anne Higonnet, Richard Kendall and Alastair Wright . Published by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013. 148 pages, 103 color illustrations.