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Impressionist itinerary

Plan a getaway from gray and bask in a world of color

Claude Monet's 'The Seine at Bougival' on display at the Currier Museum of Art illustrates the first phase of the style. Claude Monet's "The Seine at Bougival" on display at the Currier Museum of Art illustrates the first phase of the style. (Currier Museum of Art)
By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / February 15, 2009
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Light and color. At the midpoint of a gray New England winter, we crave both.

What better antidote to our monochromatic season than the riotously colorful paintings of the Impressionists, those rebellious 19th-century artists who rendered ordinary scenes of landscape and family in loose, open brush strokes that extol movement and emphasize the changing qualities of light.

We can satisfy those cravings at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which has one of the largest collections outside Paris of the works of Claude Monet, considered by many the master of the genre. But stunning collections of Impressionism wait to be discovered all over New England.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

The Clark's 33 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir include "At the Concert," a multilayered look at seeing and being seen, and "Sleeping Girl With a Cat," which was lampooned by several caricaturists when shown at an Impressionist Exposition in Paris in 1882. The Clark also has 10 paintings by Monet, one of the best collections in the country of Edgar Degas, and works by Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Mary Cassatt.

The Clarks loved collecting favorite artists in depth, said Richard Rand, senior curator, and the museum has continued that tradition. "Only by examining multiple works by a single artist can one really appreciate" the evolution of an artist's style, his career trajectory, Rand said. The Clark also has a significant collection of French "academic" or "salon" paintings, the government-supported style the Impressionists were rebelling against.

While the Clark institute was built as a museum, it has the intimacy of a home, with low ceilings and small rooms. It is set on 140 acres of woodlands, meadow, and pasture, just the kind of landscape that inspired the Impressionists. "Looking at landscapes on the walls and through the windows creates a real resonance," Rand said.

225 South St., Williamstown, 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu.

Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art

This is a museum that loves to flaunt the new and modern, and also has quite a collection of traditional art. The centerpiece of its 19th and early-20th-century French paintings is Edouard Manet's portrait of Berthe Morisot, in which Manet portrayed his friend resting on a plum velvet sofa in his studio. The painting reveals the elements of Manet's radical style, including broad, tactile paint-handling and the dominant contrast of light and dark tones. Also representing Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools are Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Paul Cézanne.

The American collection includes works by Cassatt, Martin Johnson Heade, John Singer Sargent, Fitz Henry Lane, J. Alden Weir, and Winslow Homer.

224 Benefit St., Providence, 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org.

Portland Museum of Art

The gem of this Maine museum's Impressionist collection, says Thomas Denenberg, chief curator, is Renoir's "Confidences," a painting he calls one of the best Renoirs in New England. It's part of the rich Joan Whitney Payson collection. The museum is also fortunate to be the home of the collection of Scott Black, a Boston collector who favors Impressionists and has placed some 20 pieces by Renoir, Monet, Boudin, and others at the museum. "Scott's paintings hung alongside our permanent collection make for a very rich look at Impressionism," Denenberg said.

American Impressionists on view include Cassatt and Childe Hassam, whose painting of the Isles of Shoals "shows the international conversation on art that was going on at the time," Denenberg said.

Nostalgia drives the continuing popularity of the genre, Denenberg said. "It's essentializing. It's warm, inviting, timeless." While French Impressionism was a rebellion, he said, when Americans adopted the style, it became conservative. In an era of rapid industrial change, it fixated on the dreamy, pre-Industrial New England landscape.

From June 25 to Oct. 12, the museum will feature "Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England," focusing on the Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Conn., centers that were the inspiration for many American Impressionists.

Seven Congress Square, 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org.

Currier Museum of Art

A small but significant French Impressionist collection at the Currier includes an early painting by Monet, "The Seine at Bougival," done in 1869 before the word "impressionism" had been coined. It shows the first phase of the new style, said Kurt Sundstrom, associate curator. "This painting is always requested by any museum doing a Monet exhibit," Sundstrom said. "It has traveled the world."

Among the American Impressionists shown is Edmund Tarbell, whose "Mercie Cutting Flowers" depicts the artist's daughter on the doorstep of their home in New Castle, N.H. Her dappled, pastel dress is in the tradition of Renoir. Also on display are an early painting by Hassam, "The Goldfish Window"; Heade's beach and marsh landscapes, including one of Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea; and works by Lane, Willard Metcalf, and Frank Benson.

150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., 603-669-6144, www.currier.org.

Wadsworth Atheneum

The strength of the Wadsworth's collection, according to Elizabeth Kornhauser, Krieble curator of American painting and sculpture, is that visitors can compare some of the finest examples of French Impressionism with their American counterparts. "What they'll see," she said, "is that French painters were more daring in their use of bright colors and broken brush strokes. Americans held back stylistically but were successful in applying the techniques to uniquely American subject matter."

The museum's most famous work, she said, is Renoir's depiction of Monet painting in his Argenteuil garden. Also on display are works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Cezanne, and Pissarro.

On the American side, Theodore Robinson's painting of Boston's Beacon Street is significant, she said, because it shows the influence of his friendship with Monet. Kornhauser calls John Twachtman's "Emerald Pool, Yellowstone" the museum's greatest work of American Impressionism for its bold use of color and the way it begins to move toward modernism and abstraction. One of the reasons the Wadsworth's collection is so rich, Kornhauser said, is because Connecticut was the site of two artists colonies that nurtured Impressionists, at Cos Cob and Old Lyme. Many of the best works by Hassam, Twachtman, and Weir, she said, were inspired by Connecticut landscapes.

600 Main St., Hartford, 860-278-2670, www.wadsworthatheneum.org.

Hill-Stead Museum

What's stunning about Hill-Stead is seeing masterpieces displayed in the home for which they were originally purchased. Alfred Atmore Pope's collection of French Impressionist paintings hangs on a dining room wall, above a fireplace, over a piano. From one spot in the drawing room, it is possible to see two Monets, a Manet, and a Degas. The paintings are surprisingly accessible and vivid.

Because the family's collection was amassed before they moved to the house, much of the home was decorated around the collection. Edgar Degas' "Jockeys" is a good example. It's hung over a mantel clearly designed for this piece of art, and the celadon-glazed pottery around it picks up the green of the grass in the painting.

35 Mountain Road, Farmington, Conn., 860-677-4787, www.hillstead.org.

Florence Griswold Museum

Some of the best works of the American Impressionists who stayed at Florence Griswold's boarding house appear on the walls and door panels of this late Georgian-style mansion on the Lieutenant River.

The artists, who came to be known as the Old Lyme Colony, included Metcalf, Hassam, and Matilda Brown. Many painted directly on the walls and doors of the house. The most breathtaking example is found in the dining room, where painted panels cover every wall. The subject matter of the panels mirrors the interests of the painters of the colony and includes Lyme landscapes, bucolic rural scenes, woodland interiors, and a few exotic images of the Far East, Venice, Spain, and New York.

On the second floor of the house, the exhibition "An American Place: The Art Colony at Old Lyme" features many of the artists who were in the vanguard of the American Impressionist movement.

96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, Conn., 860-434-5542, www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org.

Shelburne Museum

Open from May 17 to Oct. 25, the Shelburne's collection includes masterpieces by Monet, Cassatt, Manet, and Degas. Also on display are works by pre-Impressionist French painters Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Charles-François Daubigny.

Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer, collectors of Impressionism and the parents of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb, once owned most of the pictures at Shelburne. The collection is shown in six period rooms relocated from Electra and J. Watson Webb's 1930s New York apartment, now in the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building.

Shelburne's extensive collection of 19th-century American paintings features Hudson River School landscapes and Luminist seascapes. Artists include Heade, Lane, and Homer, among others.

Leslie Wright, public relations manager, says people are surprised to find such a collection in Shelburne. "The other wonderful thing," she said "is how accessible our art is. You literally can walk right up to the pieces."

US Route 7, Shelburne, Vt., 802-985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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