For many people, Impressionism is about as Modern a school of art as they can stand, even though at the time it first appeared in the later half of the 19th century it was a wildly controversial style. Today, it’s hard to see what all of the fuss was about, living as we do in a deeply silly, stupid time, in which art critics debate over whether someone’s appearance on a television show is, in fact, a work of art. Fortunately however, there are always interesting news stories from the art world involving the Impressionists, and so we turn to them for this week’s art news roundup.
After many years, there’s a happy ending to a minor, but interesting art mystery. Like many of the Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) was fascinated by and collected Japanese art and decorative objects. During Monet’s lifetime a small, Japanese ceramic cat sat on a pillow in the dining room at the artist’s famous country house in Giverny, but after his death it passed into the collection of his younger son, Michel. Unknown to almost everyone, Michel had a daughter by his mistress, and when he died he left dozens of works of art and Monet family items to his daughter. When she herself died in 2008 her existence became known, and her descendants decided to sell off many of the Monet items, including the cat. It was bought at auction by a Japanese art dealer last fall, who has now returned the sleeping kitty to the Monet Foundation, which has put it back on its cushion in the dining room at Giverny.
The stylish Italian Carabinieri, well-known for press conferences in which they pose stoically before looted or stolen antiquities and works of art that they have recovered, now have a major new feather in their cap. “Girls on the Lawn” by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and “The Holy Family” by Dutch Old Master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) were stolen by a gang of conmen in the city of Monza, who duped the gallery that owned the paintings into turning them over via an elaborate ruse. The works were recovered as part of a sting organized by the Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Unit, which to me sounds like a great subject for the next iteration of Law and Order, should Dick Wolf ever decide to come out of retirement. The paintings are currently being examined by experts for any damage and to verify that they are, indeed, the stolen works, before the local prosecutor gets to work on the case against the eight people who have been rounded up and charged with the crime.
If you’ve ever heard of Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell (1858-1930) before today, then you’re one up on me, and probably a lot of other people as well: fortunately, now his home town is doing something to change that. Russell studied in London and Paris in the 1880’s, and spent a great deal of time living and working in France, where he was both a popular, well-liked figure, and friendly with Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. He was happily married to an Italian model who had posed for Rodin, and they had many children together. When she died in 1908 he became heartbroken, and destroyed over 400 of his own paintings, which may be one reason he is not as well-known as he might otherwise have been. He eventually returned home to Australia and died there, forgotten and ignored.
If you happen to find yourself in Sydney over the next few months then, I highly recommend that you check out a major retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which opened this week and runs through November 11th. As lovely as his landscapes are, to me the most striking work of Russell’s that I’ve seen to date is the magnificent portrait he painted in 1886 of his friend and contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), which is on loan to the exhibition from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. With great sensitivity, Russell captures the haunted, hunted spirit of his friend in a way that differs from, and yet clearly relates to, Van Gogh’s own self-portraits.