Nature and the City:Impressionism to École de Paris



Paintings in different periods of natural and urban landscapes mirror shifts in aesthetic ideals with time. In late nineteenth century France, the life and outlook of the bourgeois class transformed as the progress of modernization and the rapid pace of industrialization brought them economic stability and a central position in society. The broad development of railways and transportation networks also brought new perceptions of time and space. In this social climate, artists took the new connections in nature and the city as themes.
In the mid-nineteenth century, landscape paintings of artists such as Courbet, Corot, and Boudin, painters who focused on nature, became very popular among the bourgeoisie. By the end of the century, Monet and the Impressionist painters sought, along with their quest to capture the evanescence of light, to portray the modern suburban landscape with its railways and factories. Various approaches to the landscape began to appear, such as the idyllic pointillist landscapes of the Neo-Impressionists, or Utopian visions by artists such as Gauguin whose search for the primitive took him to Tahiti. For Chagall and Dufy, links to personal memory and experience were a driving force, as conveyed in Chagall’s longing depictions of his birthplace and Dufy’s renditions of the glamour of Paris. Moreover, painters turned their eyes to the modernization of Paris following the plan of Georges Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century, and to the monumental constructions erected in conjunction with the frequent World’s Fairs held in Paris. By the twentieth century, École de Paris artists had gravitated to Paris as it became the capital of the art world.

This exhibition presents around 70 examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century landscape painting from the Pola Museum of Art collection. It explores the inter-relationship of the city and nature, and the transformation of the landscape against the dynamic forces of modernization.

Ⅰ. Approaching Nature: Observation and Realism

In mid-nineteenth century France, transformations in art developed along with the social and industrial revolutions taking place at the time. Historical and mythological themes that had held sway in conventional academism gave way to explorations of new possibilities in landscape painting, a genre previously held in low regard. Although certainly painted previously, the landscape had been mainly treated as a backdrop for a painting’s narrative, not its main subject. Appearing on the scene in the new milieu were artists such as Courbet, who depicted natural landscapes strictly in accordance with reality, Corot, who painted actual trees and seashore, and Boudin, who avidly painted seascape. The development of landscape painting coincided with the introduction of new transportation systems, and people of the prevailing bourgeois class in particular were attracted to these paintings that stimulated their interest in the countryside.
Monet, who would in time become a central figure among the Impressionists, learned about going out of the studio to paint in the open air from Boudin. He tried to represent his direct impressions from nature onto the picture plane and to achieve light-filled landscapes with quick brushstrokes and pure, rather than mixed and ambiguous, pigments.

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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot,
Girl in a Forest, ca. 1865-1870

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Eugene Boudin, Sailing boats on the sea, 1873

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Claude Monet, Haystacks at Giverny, 1884

Ⅱ. Nature and the City: Modernizing Nature

Along with the theme of nature, artists who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century showed strong interest in painting new social trends that accompanied the modernization of transportation and industry, such as the culture of leisure and travel to resorts in the suburbs surrounding Paris. After 1851, in particular, when railroads were spreading across France, the culture of the city encroached upon and transformed the lush natural landscape outside the city. People in the city had a new lifestyle, dressed in new fashions and went outside the city for pleasure in their leisure time. The era was one of change in how people related to nature.

In this atmosphere, painters as well turned their attention to the countryside. The Impressionist artists, painting in the open air, were particularly conscious of the effect modernization was having on nature. While paying homage to nature, they also portrayed the trains and factories that appeared in the dynamic modernizing landscape.

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Claude Monet, La Promenade, 1875

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Claude Monet, Flowered Riverbank, Argenteuil, 1875


Claude Monet, The Isle of La Grande Jatte, 1875

Ⅲ. Nature as Utopia: Desire for the Ideal

The vision of an ideal world of natural beauty, a universal theme in painting, became particularly pronounced in late nineteenth century Europe. The reason lies in the fact that while the development of science and technology brought convenience and increased efficiency and production, it’s negative side – damage to the environment and a sense of alienation – created a desire for escape. A trend towards anarchism, as a reaction against capitalism and state power, was also a factor in the spread of a utopian ideal.
Post-Impressionists abandoned the objective recording of nature that was favored by the Impressionists. Neo-Impressionists, using bright colors and pointillist techniques, painted idyllic and mystic landscapes. Van Gogh and Gauguin even relocated to idyllic locations and painted works projecting their views of utopia. Monet, in his later years, created his ideal of nature in his garden at Giverny.

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Paul Signac, Bridge at Auxerre, 1902

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Vincent van Gogh, The Gleize Bridge over the Vigueirat Canal, 1888


Paul Gauguin, Dog in Front of the Hut, Tahiti, 1892

Ⅳ. Landscape of Memory: Landscape as Time

Cities inscribed with layers of time and memories of inhabitants. Artists selecting an urban landscape with historical buildings, settings previously painted by artists of earlier generations, or streets of their birthplace, painted testaments to narratives and memory engraved in those landscapes.

Paintings by artists who had an affinity with a specific location were a means for dialogue with that landscape. It is impossible to separate Cézanne’s painting from his connection with his native Provence. Braque, deeply influenced by Cézanne, visited L’Estaque and painted landscapes that had been the subject of paintings by Cézanne. Many of the paintings of Russian born Chagall, who moved often and lived in various places, were overlaid with Chagall’s memories of the village of his birth and the people who lived there.

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Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, 1892


Marc Chagall, Above the Town, Vitebsk, 1915
(c) ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2015, Chagall(R)

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Marc Chagall, I and the Village , ca. 1923-1924
(c) ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2015, Chagall(R)

Ⅴ. Paris: Portraits of the Modern City

France went through repeated political change after the French Revolution. In 1850s, according to plans to remodel the city of Paris by Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the ancient walls of the city were torn down and wide avenues transformed Paris into a modern city. The cultivation of park area within and around the city allowed people to relax in nature, and were an emblematic landscape of the time. Development continued with reconstruction following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the World Exposition at the end of the century that attracted many visitors with state of the art technology and items of interest from around the world, in a period called the ‘Belle Époque.’

The paintings of artists living in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century were unique expressions of city life, with images of new and monumental constructions such as the Eiffel tower and well-maintained parks. In addition to being a political and industrial center, the city of Paris became a center of art movements and attracted artists from all over the world.

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Raoul Dufy, Paris , 1937