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by Emily Nathan
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It’s a history not often told -- that of late-19th-century artists using the camera as amateur enthusiasts, taking photos of their family, friends and travels, rather than to produce studies for their paintings. Such is the scope of “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” an exhibition inspired by curator Elizabeth W. Easton’s discovery, 20 years ago, of never-before-seen photos in the archives of the French painter Edouard Vuillard.

On view at the Phillips Collection through May 2012 and organized by Easton as guest curator with the Van Gogh Museum’s Edwin Becker, the Indianapolis Museum’s Ellen W. Lee and Eliza Rathbone of the Phillips, “Snapshot” presents 70 paintings, prints and drawings by seven Post-Impressionists who were part of the Parisian avant-garde Nabis group -- including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallotton and Vuillard, as well as the lesser-known artists George Hendrik Breitner, Henri Evenepoel and Henri Riviere -- alongside over 200 of their photos, all taken on Kodak’s first handheld camera, which was invented in 1888.

While many will recognize the dark, rich interiors of Vuillard’s paintings, Bonnard’s sensual nudes bathed in dappled light, and Denis’ vibrant Fauvist landscapes, the artists’ photographs have been kept private, stashed away in boxes by their families or hidden deep in museum archives. And while the two mediums have their parallels -- Bonnard’s nude photos of his model and future wife Marthe are clearly echoed in many of his painted compositions, for instance -- the show suggests that the influence of photography on these artists’ painting was “diffuse and multifaceted” rather than obvious and direct.

Unlike Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins, who are known to have used their photos as preparatory studies, the artists in this show made snapshots the way tourists might, often with “no artistic intention.” Their images are full of technical errors, are badly framed and out of focus, and were clearly taken on the spur of the moment. This group of artist-photographers “did not require photography to serve their art. . . . they took photographs without preconceptions and only later realized they could use them as visual sources.” This fact doesn’t mean the pictures are without beauty and visual interest, not at all, nor does it deny photography’s influence on the way artists saw the world at the turn of the century.

Indeed the “snapshot,” made feasible in 1881 with the arrival of ultrasensitive negative plates that permitted very short exposure times, allowed for “l’instantané,” or “instantaneity” as it was called, which appealed to late-19th-century artists as an avant-garde and naturalistic method of capturing movement. As Michel Frizot writes in the show’s 248-page catalogue, published by Yale University Press, it “was a representation of the activities of living beings. . . and as such. . . enhanced the visual acuity of painters.”

The show also addresses the influence of painting on photography, notably citing Maurice Denis’ return to a beach 17 years after creating the painting On the Beach (Two Girls against the Light), to re-create it with a camera. Beyond its visual interest, this revelatory, thoroughly researched exhibition stands as a pioneering examination of what it calls the “fundamental distinction” between painting and photography.

“Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” Feb. 4-May 6, 2012, at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20009

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email