Riffs and Relations: Reframing Impressionism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.

When the Impressionist artists first exhibited their work in Paris in 1874, their loose brushwork and focus on modern life was considered radical by the art establishment. But by the 20th century, the visual language of Impressionism had gained practitioners and collectors and had become a beloved style that was essential to the development of modernism.

Henry Ossawa Tanner and Titus Kaphar are two African American artists with different relationships to this important and influential movement. Tanner was an expatriate artist who worked in an Impressionist style in the early 20th century. On the other hand, in the 21st century, Kaphar disrupts the romantic notion of the Impressionist landscape to urge us to see what lies beneath its beautiful surfaces.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Haystacks, 1930, Oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of Irwin M. Sparr

Henry Ossawa Tanner (b. 1859, Pittsburgh, PA; d. 1937, Paris, France) traveled to Europe in 1891 in hopes of studying art with a freedom not readily available to African Americans in the United States. He forged a successful career and spent the remainder of his life in France. He became a respected and decorated French artist and an inspiration to African Americans in search of a modern and liberated artistic community. Known for his atmospheric paintings of religious subject matter, Tanner was influenced by French Impressionist techniques, in particular the style of the revered Claude Monet. It is likely that Tanner’s canvas pays homage to Monet, whose haystack paintings were exhibited in Paris in 1891, the year Tanner arrived.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Claude Monet (b. 1840, Paris, France; d. 1926, Giverny, France) painted Woman with a Parasol in a single session over several hours outdoors. With a vivid palette and a loaded brush, he freely rendered in paint the gentle intimacy shared between a mother and son on a glorious, bright and windy day. Its spontaneity was praised when the picture appeared in the Second Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1876. Monet’s attention to recording the leisure pursuits of modern Parisians, his open brushwork, and his illusionistic approach to light and atmosphere were seen as revolutionary art practices during the 19th century. But they also created a veil of beauty that contemporary artist Titus Kaphar seeks to challenge.

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar (b. 1976, Kalamazoo, MI) often taps into art history in order to call attention to its absences and blind spots. In Pushing Back the Light, Kaphar samples Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol–Madame Monet and Her Son (1875), a typical subject of modern life executed with the lush color and bright light for which Impressionism is celebrated. Kaphar disturbs Monet’s luminous landscape with black tar that erupts from behind the figures, literally pushing the canvas to the border of the painting and exposing what he sees as the underbelly of Impressionist art—a movement which flourished during a critical moment in history when black lives were impacted by European colonialism in Africa and racial oppression in America after the Civil War.

The artist explains: “We look at these Impressionist paintings as beautiful pictures of the world, and to a degree they are. But what I am struck by is how much revolution is happening on the planet at the same time that we are looking at these beautiful pictures of people picnicking on the grass. . . . While we are talking and thinking about color in this different kind of way, there are people on the other side of the world who are suffering because of their color.”

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