This year's "American Sublime" was "Impressionism and Scandinavia," which just closed at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. Like last season's priceless look at 19th-century landscape painting in the United States [see "America, the Sublime," Sept. 4, 2002], this exhibition matched splendid pictures with scholarly acumen. This time out, a team of museum directors and curators led by Torsten Gunnarsson and Per Hedstrom, director and curator, respectively, at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, where the show debuted under the title "Impressionism and the North: Late 19th Century French Avant-Garde Art and the Art in the Nordic Countries 1870-1920" (the name as well of the English language edition of the catalogue), had an even more ambitious agenda.
By celebrating Scandinavian collectors of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, the show's organizers reviewed rich, multi-faceted and unfamiliar material in the history of art. Canvases by painters who are hardly known outside Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland were seen alongside masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by, among others, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.
Of the approximately 150 works on view at the Statens Museum for Kunst, more than 120 belonged to Scandinavian institutions. The ebullient paintings belied the complexity of the subject. Besides a broad overview, gallerygoers got a glimpse of the story behind Paul Gauguin's seven-month stay in Copenhagen during the mid-1880s and his abandonment of his Danish wife, their children, his early oils, later canvases and ceramics sent from the South Pacific, and pictures by friends and colleagues he had collected in Paris.
The show included a brief recap of Claude Monet's visit to Norway during the winter of 1895. And the important group exhibitions of the period were considered, including the 1893 display with more than 75 paintings by van Gogh and Gauguin, including scenes from Tahiti. Pictures made by Northerners visiting London, Paris, and Brittany were also on view.
It quickly became clear that Scandinavia had enlightened collectors whose acquisitions rival those made in Paris by Americans and Russians (such as the Steins, the Cones, Morozov and Shchukin). Of particular note was Carl Jacobsen of the Ny Carlsberg brewery and founder of the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. And then there's the Norwegian shipping magnate Jorgen Breder Stang, who sold Gauguin's epic Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? off the wall of his villa to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Either museum directors in the Northern climes of Europe don't lend their pictures willingly or else they don't field lots of requests for them. Cézanne's Still Life with Statuette was among the discoveries. A sterling example from the group of paintings with tabletop plaster figures, it foreshadows Henri Matisse's 1912 goldfish series more than other works by the Aix master.
Another gem little seen in North America is van Gogh's Landscape from Saint-Remy from 1889, in which it's hard to tell whether the Dutch artist created the animated field from colored brushstrokes or if this windswept scene is a video by a 21st-century appropriationist.
No one is ever going to confuse paintings by Theodor Philipsen, Nils Kreuger or Victor Westerholm with works hanging near them by Monet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas. But it's also unlikely they're going to mix up early-in-their-career canvases by Gauguin and van Gogh or by Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, for that matter, with the masters of Impressionism who inspired them. Then again, until Cubism was introduced, who wasn't enamored by French paintings of the 1870s and 1880s and the artists who remained active through and even beyond 1915?
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism had a foothold in the North as strong as the one Surrealism managed to get in Czechoslovakia (another much undertold chapter in the history of modern art). Though a fair share of Scandinavian artists painted urban scenes, views of country life predominate. Cows, not chanteuses, hold center stage. For the most part, fields rather than boulevards and trees rather than street lamps are rendered with rapid brushstrokes and dabs of color.
Few lighthearted moments appear among these everyday scenes. By the time you found yourself facing early works by Edvard Munch, including several the artist executed in Paris, it was easy to grasp how this Norwegian came to paint "not what I see, but what I saw." In this world, routine, not frivolity, predominates.
Because Impressionism became a magnet for artists from so many different countries, it's easy to forget that its appeal arose from various circumstances. While John House, the London-based scholar specializing in Renoir and Monet studies, has written extensively about the rise of the modern city and other factors that influenced the ways that artists depicted Paris and nearby environs, painters throughout Scandinavia responded to contemporary French practices for reasons unique to their own situation.
For example, in Denmark, the Golden Age, which was dominated by choreographer August Bournonville, author Hans Christian Andersen, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and painter C.W. Eckersberg, was drawing to a close. When Eckersberg, the influential Royal Academy professor who will be the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., next autumn, died at the age of 70 in 1853, there was a decided void in artistic circles. Christen Kolbe and J. TH. Lundbye, his most talented students, had preceded him prematurely five years earlier.
With a tradition of painting outdoors already in place, artists in Copenhagen were predisposed to respond to innovations introduced by the Impressionists. Any one who has visited the Tivoli Gardens on a warm, sunny day or walked along the canals or by the harbor might think the trio of views of La Grenouillere by Monet and Renoir -- paintings on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, London's National Gallery of Art and Stockholm's Nationalmuseum -- are actually local sights. Among the first works on display, they set the pace for the rest of the show.
Similarly setting the pace was the initial pairing of Norwegian painter Christian Krogh's dashing portrait of his colleague Gerhard Munthe from 1885 with Edouard Manet's piercing portrayal of Georges Clemenceau, which belonged to a Norwegian collector years before it entered the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (it's worth noting that Manet painted the three-quarter figure in 1880, more than 40 years before the same statesman oversaw the installation of Monet's Waterlillies in the Orangerie in Paris).
"Impressionism and the North" was filled with all sorts of taste sensations not often encountered in surveys of late 19th-century European art. At this four-star smorgasbord, the operative phrase was bon appetite.