Although reactionary in its time, impressionism’s current popular appeal has made it the poster child of art-inspired merchandise. Mugs, calendars, coasters… all can be found adorned with pastel water lilies, pastoral forest paths and peasants working in golden hayfields.
So you could be forgiven for feeling a bit blasé about another impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. But your too-cool-for-Corot attitude would prevent you from rediscovering the enduring allure of these luminous canvases – and from making some new discoveries along the way.
Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection gives us a glimpse of one of Europe’s most beautiful but lesser-known collections. Through 60 paintings, it traces the progression of 19th century French painting from the Barbizon School and realism, to post-impressionism, including works by French masters Monet, Courbet, Manet, Matisse and Renoir, among others.
Of special note is Pissarro’s trees in blossom and walkways dappled with shadow and light — impressionism at its most stunning. Stand back and the image is a shimmering landscape, held together light as air. Come close and the shape dissolves into tiny layers of colour, each brushstroke as fresh as if the painter had just put down his palette.
Another highlight is Gauguin’s canvasses with flat planes of wild, glowing colour and sinewy lines that swim in enigmatic landscapes.
That is all delightful, and that is expected. But the exhibition also held some surprises, including exceptional paintings by women impressionists Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès.
For me, the biggest discovery was a gallery that showcases the haunting beauty of several leading masters of the Danish Golden Age. For example, Vilhelm Hammershøi’s contemplative, inwardly-focused work, which inspired poet Rainer Maria Rilke, is shown to full effect in his studies of the daylight cast in the empty rooms of his house.
The source of these works, the Ordrupgaard Collection, was built between 1892 and 1931 by Danish couple Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. The works were displayed in the family home just outside of Copenhagen, where the Hansen’s opened their doors to the public one day a week. The collection was later bequeathed to the Danish state and transformed into a museum in 1953.
Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection has been organized by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the National Gallery of Canada. It is on view until Sunday, September 9. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.gallery.ca