Martin Gayford

We’re wrong to think the impressionists were chocolate boxy

The star exhibit in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy is ‘Human Misery', a timely titled work by Gauguin

A detail from ‘Human Misery’, 1888, by Paul Gauguin. Bridgeman Images

One Sunday evening in the autumn of 1888 Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin went for a walk. They headed out of Arles into the countryside and when they looked back towards town they saw a sunset so splendid that each was inspired to paint a masterpiece. One of these, Gauguin’s painting bearing the timely title ‘Human Misery’, is among the star exhibits in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy.

All the works in this show come from a delightful small museum in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, housed in the early 20th-century mansion from which it takes its name, Ordrupgaard. This was the dwelling of Wilhelm Hansen (1868–1936), a mover-and-shaker in the Danish life insurance business and an avid collector of what was then modern art.

The title Gauguin and the Impressionists notwithstanding, this show is a mixed bag of 19th-century French paintings, which are by no means all impressionist. Of course, it’s easy to understand why the RA emphasised that aspect of the exhibition. Impressionism is notoriously attractive to the public, and correspondingly can seem excessively easy on the eye — ‘chocolate box’ — to sophisticates. But that appearance is misleading. To contemporaries, not only would the brushwork of their pictures have seemed outrageously loose, but many of the subjects would have seemed abrasively utilitarian. Pissarro’s street scenes from the 1890s are typical in representing crowds and traffic in what were then thoroughly unpicturesque new shopping districts of Paris.

Monet wasn’t prettifying; he was finding beauty where almost no one else could see it

In a way, pictures such as these succeeded all too well. Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge, Overcast’ (1903) is a perfect case in point. This depicts a heavily polluted Thames on a day so gloomy that the lighted buses are glowing like coals. Most of those trudging over that bridge would have thought the scene dreary, if they noticed it at all.

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