Travel Tools from The Unofficial Guide™ Team  -  See Our Books Here!
  • Background Image

    Galleries 80-93: Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Cezanne

Main floor rooms 80 and above are dedicated to Impressionism. Up to this point, we’ve been touring the galleries in numerical order starting with Gallery 1. If you want to follow Impressionism’s development from the early 19th century on, though, start with Gallery 93 and work your way down to 80.

What is Impressionism, and what makes a painting or artist an Impressionist? At the risk of sounding like engineers in an art gallery (which we are), we think there are a few general characteristics:

  • An emphasis on capturing the overall of color and lighting of a scene rather than lots of details.
  • The use of short brush strokes, often with high-contrast colors next to each other, rather than trying to blend everything into smooth gradients.
  • Paintings of everyday subjects, not religious icons, scenes from mythology, or allegory.

You could reasonably argue that other characteristics include the use of commercial paint with artificial pigments; painting outdoors; and completing a painting quickly (often in a day).

The term impressionism wasn’t coined until 1874, although artists including Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in Paris had been working in (and defining) the style for more than a decade. That style is so different than what came before it that Monet and Renoir can be considered among its founders. Even then, they drew at least some inspiration from early French artists that are on display here in the National Gallery. We’ll begin there.

Start your tour in Gallery 93, with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1838 landscape A View near Volterra. Painted 25 years before the birth of the Impressionist school, it’s a fairly traditional landscape. A horse and rider, with their backs turned to you, are nearing a stand of trees at the top of a mountain path, and Corot has put enough detail into the work that you can clearly make out the tiny metal lock and breech of the rider’s musket. But notice the fallen tree, vegetation, and path in the foreground. Rocks are shown as little more than taupe ovals, made with short brush strokes; the white moss on the tree is represented by white down strokes with a stiff brush; and the nearby shrubs are loosely arranged dabs of green. If John Singer Sargent had painted this, you’d be able to identify the species of each plant by its leaf edges, and the horse would be wearing a burgundy robe with lace bridle.

Other Corot paintings are in Gallery 93, from which you can see his clear move towards impressionism. Done in 1872, more than 30 years after A View Near Volterra, Corot’s Italian Girl is much more aligned with the style in both technique and subject, as evidenced by her face and apron.

Moving to Gallery 92, you can see in the landscapes of Eugène Boudin a continued shift away from detailed representation and toward capturing the colors and shapes seen at a particular moment in time. In Jetty and Wharf at Trouville, pay attention to how Boudin paints the clothing and faces of the people in the lower right, especially the mother, father, girl in a white and blue dress, and their dog.

Gallery 89 mostly covers the years 1869 to 1880, and includes Manet’s The Railway; Renoir’s Pont Neuf, Paris; Camille Pissarro’s Place du Carrousel, Paris; Bazille’s Edmond Maître; and Mary Cassat’s The Loge. Cassat was an American living in Paris and was part of the impressionists’ circle. Her work here exhibits all of the characteristics of that style - notice how Cassat chose the audience as her subject, not the performers.

There’s more Pissaro in Gallery 88, which covers 1880 to 1891, but the real draw here is Georges Seurat, father of pointillism. Remember that one trait of impressionism is the use of short brush strokes and bold, unblended colors. Seurat took this to the extreme by using thousands of tiny dots of color to create entire paintings. Stand as close as the security guards will allow you to get to Seurat’s Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy, and you’ll see nothing but those tiny dots. Step back three feet and the dots form an ocean, sky, coastline, and mountains.

Gallery 87 is devoted entirely to Claude Monet landscapes from the period 1894 – 1908. The National Gallery has an interesting arrangement here, showing how Monet painted the same subject in different ways depending on the time of day. Two 1894 paintings of Rouen Cathedral, West Façade are side by side. One is done in the pale whites and greys of a cloudy day, the other with blue skies and buildings reflecting the golden sun. There’s also a trio Waterloo Bridge paintings from 1903-4, done on a “gray day,” “at dusk,” and “at sunset.”

Gallery 86 focuses on portraiture and scenes from the lives of everyday Parisians, mostly through works by Mary Cassatt from 1878 to 1905.

More Monet landscapes are in Gallery 85, including The Japanese Footbridge. In 1893, Monet bought some land with a pond next to his house in Giverny, France, and diverted a small stream to run through the property. He built a small footbridge over the pond, in which he planted everything from native water lilies to exotic species from around the world. And in 1899, with the gardens established, he began a 20-year period of painting what he saw in his yard, including the Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge series. This work is one of 12 he painted from the exact same spot in his yard that year.

Unofficial Tip: Monet’s Giverny house, gardens, and bridge still exist and they’re open for tours during the spring and summer.

A dozen paintings from Paul Cézanne are in Gallery 84, covering the years 1873 to 1906, most from 1890 on. What’s interesting here is how Cézanne’s style changes from impressionism to focusing on the geometric shapes of his subjects. That shift would influence Pablo Picasso, among others, in the early part of the 20th century.

The two early works, House of Père Lacroix from 1873 and Landscape near Paris from 1876, are in the Impressionist style, with bright colors and an emphasis on light and color, with lots of quick brush strokes.

You can see Cézanne’s style change, however, by 1883’s Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque. Look at how Cézanne painted the hills and grasses in the foreground, using aggressive, short, diagonal strokes, all in the same direction. Also notice Cézanne’s playing with depth, perspective, and shape in the houses. Two other paintings, 1888’s Harlequin and Boy in a Red Waistcoat, show Cézanne manipulating color and geometry. In particular, Boy in a Red Waistcoat deserves its own branch on the Impressionist family tree. While it’s got the typical markers of an Impressionist painting – focus on color and light – Cézanne adds a focus on shapes. Above the boy’s head is an oval hat; his vest lapels and right arm form triangles; his left arm is a line, and the curtains behind are curves (and blunt ones at that). The trees in Château Noir from 1900, also in this room, are another example of Cézanne’s shift away from impressionism.

More well-known artists are in Gallery 83, including Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. Degas is an interesting inclusion here. He was living in Paris and part of the inner circle of Impressionists during its peak, and his subject matter and painting technique were similar to that style. But Degas used darker colors, especially black, more frequently, preferred painting in his studio instead of on location, and often took weeks to complete a work, instead of a few days. Degas’ The Dance Class, on display here, is a good example of his work.

To paraphrase Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Gallery 66), insanity is to art as garlic is to salad. And in that case, it’s a good thing that Vincent van Gogh wasn’t a chef, because he exhibited signs of mental illness for most of his short, prolific life. Although van Gogh was Dutch, he lived in Paris from 1886 to 1888 and counted Pissarro, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec among his close friends.

The van Gogh works here were all painted after he left Paris for Arles, France, in 1888, and before his suicide in 1890. The two earliest here, portraits Roulin’s Baby and La Mousmé, show van Gogh’s bold brush strokes for both the subject and background, heavy use of paint, and the use of colors to express mood.

van Gogh was visited by Gauguin at Arles in the fall of 1888, and they painted together for a time. van Gogh greatly admired Gauguin, but their relationship soured, however, culminating in van Gogh cutting off his own left ear in December, 1888. That’s why van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait, shown here, and all later examples, depicts the artist from his right side (it’s a mirror image). Van Gogh died in 1890, but left more than 2,000 paintings and drawings.

Both van Gogh and Degas were fans of Gauguin’s style, which most notably departed from Impressionism by painting natural objects in artificial colors. His travels to the South Pacific, including Tahiti, came at a time when Europe was fascinated with that part of the world. Gauguin’s works from this time on display here include Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), The Bathers, and Te Pape Nave Nave (Delectable Waters). Take a good look at how Gauguin paints the human bodies in Te Pape Nave Nave, and see if you can spot similarities in Picasso’s Two Youths next door.

Our tour of Impressionism ends with in Gallery 80, which features works by Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Amedeo Modigliani. The works in this gallery show the transition of Paris-based artists from Impressionism to new styles, as the late 19th century gave way to the early 20th.

We admit we’re suckers for Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. Looking at A la Bastille from 1888 or A Corner of the Moulin de la Galette from 1892, even us unsophisticates [sic] can tell it’s Belle Époque Paris.

Lautrec’s use of color and choice of subject matter (the nightclubs of Paris are a common theme) align with those of Impressionism, but he used longer brush strokes and thinned oil paint, giving his works a different quality. Like Cézanne in his later years, Lautrec wasn’t afraid to use unnatural colors for portraits – witness the blue-green hair and skin in Lady with a Dog.

The two works here by Amedeo Modigliani are Chaim Soutine from 1917 and Madame Amédée (Woman with Cigarette) from 1918. Modigliani was influenced by both Cézanne and Lautrec, so this is the right gallery to introduce his work. However, Modigliani is most famous for his nudes (two are in Gallery 81), whose frank representations caused the police to shut down their exhibition in 1918. Modigliani was also a renowned sculptor, and his Head of a Woman (Ground floor, Gallery 41) is part of one of our favorite exhibits downstairs.

Unofficial Tip: Chaim Soutine, the subject of one of Modigliani’s portraits here, was a friend and fellow painter. One of his works is also on display in this gallery.

Three Picasso works are also in Gallery 80. One is Le Gourmet, from 1901, the beginning of Picasso’s “blue period” (roughly 1901 to 1904) in which blue is the primary color for most of his work. And notice the way Picasso purposely painted the table out of perspective in this scene. Over the last 700 years, starting from Gallery 1, we’ve seen artists not use perspective, then experiment with it, try to copy it faithfully, and here with Picasso, throw the convention away.

Another Picasso here is Family of Saltimbanques, a large painting done in 1905, the early part of Picasso’s career. In it you can see more of Picasso’s experimentation with shapes and backgrounds. The subject matter – circus performers – continues the theme we’ve seen for the last few galleries. The bleak, desert-like background here suggests these people are not regarded highly.

Like Cézanne, Picasso uses a harlequin’s costume for its geometric patterns (Picasso also painted himself as the harlequin), and notice how the shape of the figures forms a triangle on its side, pointing to the right. It’s similar to the technique da Vinci and Raphael used to compose their subjects, but rotated 90 degrees.

Other Lands at National Gallery of Art