Exhibition looks at photography’s impact on Impressionists

Left: Claude Monet, ‘Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Morning Effect),’ 1894, oil on canvas, 107 x 74 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection. Right: Bisson Freres, ‘Rouen Cathedral—Facade,’ albumen print, 42.5 x 34.5 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Images courtesy Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

MADRID – Few inventions had such a significant impact on modern society as photography did. Its appearance radically changed how artists, particularly the Impressionist painters, looked at the world and depicted reality. The exhibition on view at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza this autumn examines the repercussions the invention of photography had on the development of the visual arts in the second half of the 19th century and offers a critical reflection on the affinities and mutual influences between painting and photography, including the debate it sparked among critics and artists.

Curated by Paloma Alarcó, chief curator of Modern Painting at the Museo Thyssen, “The Impressionists and Photography” features 66 oil paintings and works on paper and more than 100 photographs. It includes loans from the photography collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the J. Paul Gettty Museum in Los Angeles, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or the Société française de photographie in Paris.

Among the paintings are significant works by Manet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; by Bazille from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris; by Monet from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel; and by Degas from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as from the private collections of Henry and Rose Pearlman, and Ann and Gordon Getty.

Following the appearance of the first daguerreotypes in the late 1830s and, above all, the subsequent discovery of techniques for making photographic prints on paper, a very close relationship was established between photography and painting. The artificial eye of the camera of photographers such as Gustave Le Gray, Eugène Cuvelier, Henri Le Secq, Olympe Aguado, Charles Marville and Félix Nadar spurred Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and the young Impressionists Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Marie Bracquemond, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte to devise a new way of looking at the world.

During the decades that saw the development of Impressionism, photography gradually ceased to be regarded as a mere mechanical means of reproducing reality and slowly gained artistic credibility. It provided Impressionism not only with a source of iconography but also with technical inspiration for the scientific observation of light and depiction of asymmetrical, cropped spaces, as well as for the exploration of spontaneity and visual ambiguity. Similarly, a few photographers – particularly the finde-siècle Pictorialists – influenced by the Impressionists’ new style of execution, became concerned with the materiality of their images and sought methods for making their photographs less precise and more painterly. “… to distill the eternal from the transitory” (Charles Baudelaire) The Impressionists were keenly aware of the transient nature of reality, which changes by the moment and vanishes. With its unique ability to bring time to a standstill indefinitely, photography seemed to them to mark a symbolic victory of man over temporality and triggered a revolutionary transformation in their depictions. The reduction of scenes to a very short interval of time forced them to look more quickly and paint more quickly, attaching less importance to the reflection process than to the effect. Light, a fundamental element for the Impressionists, was another affinity they shared with photography, whereas they differed from it in their absolute freedom in the use of color.

The exhibition will be on view from Oct. 15 through Jan. 26.