I am a super French art nerd. I have Chagall on my bedroom door, I made my students research a French artist when I was a high school teacher, I have eaten at the cafe that Van Gogh painted in Cafe Du Nuit. If you travel with me, we are going to the art museum, the big one and the little ones. I can tell you in which crappy little studio Cubism was invented, which train station in Paris inspired Monet with it’s steamy environment, which Impressionist was a momma’s boy, which floor in the Musee d’Orsay you should hit first, and all about the students who died in the streets of Paris for the right to artistic nudity back in the day. I will shut up now.

So predictably I was very excited to visit the new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, Inspiring Impressionism, which promises to highlight the roots of the Avant-garde artistic movement as the school of painters evolved from being laughed off the streets of Paris in the 1860’s to today’s current insanely popular status of the genre: come on, even your grandma has a picture of Monet’s waterlillies. 

Back in the day, however, the tawdry gang of Bazille, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley were freaking rock stars; rebels in the structured French art world who painted what no one dared paint before. They painted scenes of daily life, not posing nobles. They worked spontaneously outside, not in the studio with a plan. They emphasized light over darkness, shunning the color black. They used bright, unmixed color with bold brush strokes, eschewing the traditional goal of trying to achieve reality with their pictures. They favored generalized form over specific detail and focused on the setting of the painting, not the subject. The Impressionists represented a complete break from the the progression of the history of art.

Or did they? The current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum explores this idea to illuminate the true origins of the Impressionist movement. Inspiring Impressionism looks not at the painters’ childhoods or where they spent their adolescence, but rather it reveals what artists inspired the new school of the Impressionists. And Impressionism is there, lurking in 18th century paintings of the Dutch Masters and peeking out from the walls of the Louvre. You can see the seeds of this revolutionary Impressionist movement beginning to sprout long before Manet painted a naked lady on the grass and scandalized the masses (Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, 1863).

Monet may have stated that he was “never influenced by the art of the past”, but that is just the ego of an artist talking. Of course all of the Impressionists were influenced by the works of Michaelangelo, by unearthed Greek Kouros statues, of Spanish works brought to France after Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. You have been influenced by this art as well, whether you know it or not. Art effects culture which effects identity and that’s you. The Impressionists as well were not isolated from the history of art culture; rather they took their inspiration from it.

Many of the group studied classical paintings in the Louvre; Manet and Degas met there while copying Spanish artist Velasquez’ Infanta Margarita (1656). Some attended the hoity-toity Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) on the Left Bank which still churns out annoying art students today. Living in Paris it is impossible not to be inspired by the art of the past; the city is saturated in beauty and art that soon gets inside of you. This was just as true in the 1860’s when the Impressionists were coming of age. The evolution of art is a continual process, a connected and holistic animal whose parts cannot be severed. The exhibit plays this out beautifully, with an easy and compelling story-line along with additional artist info at particular paintings from your cell phone if you so desire. 

The absolute most amazing room of the exhibition is the last one, a small space hung with four paintings from some of the top-name Impressionists: Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Cezanne. The works continue the story of art in your mind and show you without a doubt that the circle of inspiration is still rolling. From Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1906), Cubism jumps out and punches you in the face. Renoir’s The Wave (1882) leans fully into abstraction with red and golden pieces of water swirling up into the sky, as does a close-up of Monet’s Waterlillies which seem to be floating not in his tranquil garden in Giverny, but somewhere in the ethereal consciousness of a flower fairy. Manet’s Gypsy Woman with a Cigarette intensely blends his earlier romantic world view with a forward-looking modernist approach. These four paintings do a brilliant job of showcasing the continual evolution of arts culture, a powerful ending point to the well laid-out exhibit that truly drives the point home. We are all connected; we are inspired by and inspire our fellow human beings. At least that is what we are going for.

This point was made even clearer to me while I was thinking about the exhibit as I was dancing Thursday night at Club Pop at Chop Suey. For the first time in my life, I truly appreciated the decade I was born in: the 70’s. Say what you want about white polyester jump suits, feathered hair, and All in the Family, but the disco movement completely paved the way for the electronic music and hip-hop of today that I love so much. You can hear it in the beats, just as you can see the beginnings of Impressionism decades before the movement had a name. And disco in turn was influenced by Latin rhythms like the Samba, which was itself inspired by beats from the African Congo…it is this continuous flow of ideas which create and evolve not only the arts but human culture in general. We cannot escape the past, nor should we want to; it is a fundamental part of our identity. And besides, I really like disco balls.

Good art makes you think. Great art changes the way you see the world. Inspiring Impressionism makes a profound statement not only about the world of the French Impressionists, but on the connected nature of human existence, which is so important at a time when we must work together to ensure our species’ survival. No human is an island, not even Monet.

Inspiring Impressionism runs at the Seattle Art Museum through September 21; tickets are $20 and there are special discounts for students and seniors. It is highly recommended; even super French art nerds can learn a thing or two. 


Community Inspiring Impressionism at the Seattle Art Museum