Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935), Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Felix Fénéon in 1890, 1890-1891, oil on canvas, 29 x 36-1/2 in. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
INDIANAPOLIS—It is a well-established fact that the Neo-Impressionist artists painted a lot of beautiful landscapes, seascapes and scenes of modern life. From one exhibition to another, Neo-Impressionists painters like Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Anna Bach, George Lemmen, Charles Angrand and many others have been celebrated for their amazing ability to capture the atmosphere in the most captivating colors. Beyond landscapes, seascapes and scenes of modern life, however, many of Neo-Impressionist painters also did a lot of arresting portraits of unusual beauty and perception. These portrait paintings are the focus of a major art exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).
Titled Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904, this is the first exhibition devoted solely to portraits of the Neo-Impressionist movement. The exhibition features more than 30 paintings and 20 works on paper by 15 painters from France, Belgium and The Netherlands, working between 1887 and 1901. The artists list includes Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce and Vincent van Gogh.
Developed in late 19th-century Paris by French painter Georges Seurat, Neo -Impressionism has its root in the discoveries in optics and perception in France in the 19th century. Soon after the discovery of photography that made realistic images widely available, many artists began to look for new ways of presenting portraits in a way that is not mimetic of photography. Although physical resemblance remained an important aspect of portraiture, artists of the era freely expressed their individual techniques in the effort to capture the psychological or spiritual identity of their subject. They also bring to bear in their paintings, their own emotional connection with their subjects.
Seurat shaped the direction of the movement with his use of brilliant color and pointillist brushwork in his paintings. His innovative approach to painting influenced many other artists of the era, who began to incorporate his pointillist technique and use of bright colors in their own works. Some even took the style in a different direction, archiving their own stylistic approach to Neo Impressionism. The exquisite black and white drawings by artists such as Paul Signac and Georges Lemmen demonstrate one of the approaches that formed Neo-Impressionism.
Curated by Ellen W. Lee, The Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the IMA, and Professor Jane Block, Ph.D, of the University of Illinois, a specialist on turn-of- century Belgian art and culture, the works in Face to Face were drawn from museums, institutions and private collections throughout Europe and the United States. They include Musée d’Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Together, they have been attracting art lovers from and around Indianapolis.
Located in the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery, the show brings to the fore an aspect of the neo-impressionists oeuvre that has not gained adequate attention in contemporary art exhibitions. Face to Face is the first museum exhibition to examine this significant facet of the Neo-Impressionist movement. Ellen W. Lee explains that the inadequate attention to the portraits of the Neo-Impressionist movement is perhaps because of their brilliant landscape paintings. She notes: “Perhaps because Neo-Impressionism is so definitively linked to the pursuit of natural light and brilliant color, the primary vehicles for analyzing the technique have been landscapes and other outdoor scenes.”
Face to Face is remarkable not just because it is the first time there is a focus on this aspect of Neo Impressionist history, but also because it confirms that the artists were outstanding portraitists. The array of captivating images introduces a fresh insight into the aesthetics and character of one of the fascinating chapters in art history. “This exhibition reveals the Neo-Impressionists’ ability to invest psychological intensity and vivid expression into that most natural of subjects—the human face,” notes Ellen W. Lee.
Many of the subjects of the Neo-Impressionist portraits were artists’ families and friends. One of the major works in this show is Paul Signac’s portrait of Félix Fénéon – Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Felix Fénéon in 1890. This canvas which has not been outside of New York City in more than 30 years, celebrates Fénéon, the intriguing critic and political activist who coined the term “Neo-Impressionist.” Arguably the most extraordinary portrait of the Neo-Impressionist movement, Fénéon is presented against a kaleidoscope background that parodies the scientific roots of Neo-Impressionism. This striking image elevates art history.
The life-size images of Alice, Maria, and Irma Séthe painted by Belgian painter Théo van Ryssleberghe at the height of his powers is another major feature of this well-thought out show. In what can be classified as “family reunion,” this is one of the very rare moments the three paintings are been presented together. The paintings that started entering museum collections in France, Belgium, and Switzerland many years ago, allows for proper contextualization of the other important works by the Belgian Neo-Impressionists.
Self-Portrait, 1887 by Vincent van Gogh, is one the crowd pleasers. The painting shows van Gogh’s outstanding ability as a painter and colorist. His combination of arresting contrast of complementary colors and vigorous brushstrokes, demonstrate van Gogh’s quest to capture not just his own resemblance but also internal and psychological emotions. Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, 1887 is a great Neo-Impressionist example of the artist’s remarkable self-portraits. It demonstrates how the artist personalized the idea derived from Seurat’s artistic practice.
Albert Dubois-Pillet, the first painter to apply Neo-Impressionism to portraiture is represented in this exhibition by two images: Portrait of Mademoiselle B., 1886-87 and Portrait of Monsieur Pool, 1887. A self-trained artist and professional soldier, Albert Dubois-Pillet explored light and colors in an intriguing way to reveal the beauty of his subjects. Portrait of Mademoiselle B., 1886-87 captures a woman dressed in white sitting on a brown chair. Positioned before a floral wall paper, the painting reveals a proud yet serene woman. The piece shows Albert Dubois-Pilletoutstanding ability to capture moods and attitude.This outstanding ability is also replicated in Portrait of Monsieur Pool, 1887. The artist captures a soldier in his well-ironed uniform. From his coyly mustache to the glistering medal of honor on his uniform, there is no doubt that this is a proud soldier.
Face to Face validates IMA’s commitment to the promotion of scholarship in the area of Neo Impressionist art. Besides having one of the finest collections of Neo- Impressionist art in America, the museum has been unrelenting in the promotion of scholarship in this area of art history. “The Indianapolis Museum of Art has the finest Neo-Impressionist collection in America, so this exhibition was a natural outgrowth of the excellent scholarship we have done and continue to do in this area of art history,” said Dr. Charles L. Venable, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO.
Since it opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the show has been generating a lot of attention. For the organizers, this is not surprising. When it was first staged in ING Cultural Center in Brussels from February 19 through May 18, 2014, it was well-received. In a city whose artists made significant contributions to Neo-Impressionism, the excitement was climactic. Titled To the Point, The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904, the show attracted lot art lovers from across Brussels and Europe.
Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904, on view through September 7, 2014at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), 4000 Michigan Road Indianapolis, Indiana