Friday, April 22, 2016

Activity on the Seine: French and Dutch Contrasts

This exhibition features landscape art of the Seine River specifically highlighting works by French artists Maurice Vlaminck, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Claude Monet and Dutch artist Johan Barthold Jongkin. Many artists have painted the Seine throughout the years in various settings, cities, times of day, and seasons. The river has served as a calm, resting place for many artists seeking respite from the busyness of Paris city life. Some renditions of the Seine emphasize the natural beauty of the shoreline, the surrounding trees or the horizon where sky and river meet. Others depict the quiet leisurely activities that residents and visitors enjoy alongside the river. The French art within this exhibition, dating from 1880-1906, utilizes short brush strokes and a variety of color to depict the Seine as a constant, a resting place for both boats and fishermen. Away from the industrialization and bustle of the city, the Seine winds through the French countryside providing respite for residents and artists alike. The calming effect that the French impressionist/post-impressionist paintings have on the viewer as well as the extent to which the viewer can engage with the material are in contrast to that of Dutch artist Johan Jongkin’s earlier renditions of the Seine from the mid 1800s. Rather than painting from the countryside, Johan depicts the Seine as it is during the French Industrialization. In Jongkin’s renditions, the Seine is not a beautiful escape for pause and relaxation. Rather, it is depicted as a tool for commerce, construction and transportation. Jongkin’s Northern artistic style and his use of darker colors produce a qualitatively different portrayal of the Seine than the French artists’ portrayal. The central painting in this exhibition is Maurice Vlaminck’s 1906 Seine at Chatou in which Vlaminck combines bold colors with active brush strokes illustrating a landscape that is both active and quiet, both industrialized and pastoral.

Georges Seurat, Gray Weather, Grande Jatte, 1886-88, Oil on Canvas, 2002.62.3
In Gray Weather, Georges Seurat crafts an image of the Seine that is quiet, peaceful and absolutely still. The lone boat and empty path make the atmosphere even more tranquil, as even the potential for activity seems to be absent. The technique of pointillism makes the painting seem even more flat and static, further withdrawing any dynamism that could have existed within the painting. The town in the background is distant and hard to engage with, nevertheless, the image is calm, steady and evokes a similar feeling in the viewer.

Claude Monet, Vetheuil in Summer, 1880, Oil on canvas, 51.30.3
In Vetheuil in Summer, Monet’s use of short soft brushstrokes typifies the French impressionist style. Viewed closely, the individual strokes combined with the mostly green and blue hues merge to craft a pleasant, quiet scene. The soft blend of colors and strokes produces a haze that the viewer can passively absorb. Here the Seine is depicted peacefully, as a resting place for the small boats and fishermen. Yet it differs from Seurat’s illustration in that people are present, the town is closer, and the brush technique is dynamic, elevating the picture plane and eliminating the static atmosphere so prominent in Gray Weather, Grande Jatte.

Vincent Van Gogh, Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy, (Asnieres,) 1887, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Van Gogh’s mostly blue, green and yellow color palette is quite similar to Monet’s Vetheuil in Summer. However, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes are less blended and thus more distinct, creating a clearer, bolder picture of the man and two boats. Fishing in Spring cannot be as passively absorbed as Monet’s depiction of the Seine nor is it static like Seurat. Instead, the viewer is required to engage more in this slightly more active scene. Nevertheless, the Seine remains a happy, peaceful place, slightly more active than in Vetheuil in Summer.

Maurice de Vlaminck, The Seine at Chatou, 1906, Oil on canvas, 1999.363.84

Similar to Monet and Van Gogh, Maurice Vlaminck paints the Seine at Chatou using short brushstrokes and vivid colors, especially blues and greens. Similar to the previous images, Vlaminck includes a lone dinghy which both emphasizes the serenity of the environment while also evoking loneliness in the viewer. His rendition of the Seine leaves potential for the viewer to either actively engage with each individual brushstroke or to passively receive the tranquility of this moment on the Seine. Vlaminck depicts the Seine as a quiet place, as shown through the lone dinghy, but he also chooses to include a tug boat or barge of some sort, revealing the industrialization and activity that is extending past the confines of Paris.

Johan Barthold Jongkind, The Pont Neuf, 1849-50, Oil on Canvas, 1980.203.3
In stark contrast to the French painters, Johan Barthold Jongkind’s portrays the Seine as dirty, busy and full of activity. Rather than serving as a quiet place of respite, Jongkind portrays the Seine in light of being close to the city. The water and sky are not mostly composed of lighthearted blues and greens, but are instead grays and browns occasionally mixed with a light blue that seems to be fighting a losing battle against the pollution and darkness. There is trash along the shoreline and while there are people present, they do not seem to be engaging in leisurely activities. Here, the Seine is not beautiful nor does it seem to carry the same agency that it has through the French artists’ lenses. Instead, the Seine is a passive bystander, receiving the ramifications of industrialization even as the viewer receives the image with slight trepidation. 

Johan Barthold Jongkin, View from the Quai d’Orsay, 1854, Oil on canvas, 2001.652
Similar to The Pont Neuf, Jongkin portrays the Seine in light of its utility and functionality, rather than in light of its beauty and power of producing tranquility. The painting is split in half by the dry cracked land. The people present are not engaged in leisure but are rather working or walking with a purpose; the barges and cranes highlight the industrial nature of the city. While this Jongkin painting utilizes lighter colors than The Pont Neuf, thus fostering a lighter mood, the distance from the city and centrality of the barge evokes a loneliness in the viewer similar to that experienced at Vlaminck’s Seine at Chatou.

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