Locke on Thompson and Rishel and Owens and Rub, 'Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art'

Jennifer A. Thompson, Joseph J. Rishel, Eileen Owens, Timothy Rub, eds.
Nancy Locke

Jennifer A. Thompson, Joseph J. Rishel, Eileen Owens, Timothy Rub, eds. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 216 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87633-289-4

Reviewed by Nancy Locke (Pennsylvania State University) Published on H-Pennsylvania (January, 2021) Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55313

The collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands as one of the richest in the nation. It is not surprising that the institution would want to document it in book form. The questions that arise, however, concern the form that such a book should take. Curators necessarily considered how much of the vast collection should be included, and how many works should be illustrated. If these movements are primarily French, how many non-French artists should appear? What should the balance be between painting and other art forms? And is the audience for the book primarily members of the museum-going public, scholars specializing in the artists featured, or perhaps readers discovering the art for the first time? There may be no correct answers to these questions, and I would like to stress that as I sketch the way I think Jennifer A. Thompson and her collaborators chose to structure Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thompson’s introduction gives some idea of the decisions that had to be made. “With over two hundred paintings, drawings, and watercolors by Paul Cézanne; twenty-two paintings by [Claude] Monet; fifty paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir; 150 sculptures by Auguste Rodin; more than eighty works by Mary Cassatt; and seminal pieces by Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec”—not to mention noteworthy works by Vincent van Gogh, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley, and more—Thompson and her colleagues faced a mammoth task (p. 9). In the end, the book focuses on ninety works in all media. Each has a full-page color reproduction, identifying information, and a catalogue entry or short essay. Instead of having sections devoted to individual artists, which might have made for weighty sections of Cézanne and Cassatt, for instance, the book orders the objects chronologically. At first this might seem odd: Cézanne’s Quartier Four, Auvers-sur-Oise has been split from the artist’s famed Mont Ste-Victoire (the 1873 painting appears on pp. 48–49, and the later ones—the Philadelphia Museum of Art holds two Mont Ste-Victoire landscapes—on pp. 188–191). The advantage in the chronological organization can be seen, however, when one turns a page or two and starts to see relationships among works that grew out of a particular moment. Monet’s Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1873 (pp. 44-45), in which we see a concern with sunlight and the momentary sighting of a sailboat and a train, leads to Sisley’s Landscape (Spring at Bougival), also of 1873, with its ephemeral spring blossoms (pp. 46–47), and more landscapes by Cézanne and Monet that follow. Degas’s expressive drawing and color saturation in After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), c. 1896, can be seen as coming to fruition at the same time as richly colored figurative works like Renoir’s Girl in a Red Ruff and Cassatt’s Mother and Child (Maternal Kiss), a pastel on paper (pp. 168–173). Separate sections on the various artists would have absolutely minimized such connections.

Over the years, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has developed and served as a venue for major exhibitions that have contributed considerable new knowledge to the field. The late Joseph J. Rishel, formerly Curator Emeritus of European Painting at the museum and a contributor to the book, was the force behind the landmark Cézanne (1996) that celebrated the centenary of Ambroise Vollard’s exhibition of Cézanne in Paris, and (with Katherine Sachs) the more experimental Cézanne and Beyond (2009) that examined Cézanne’s influence on artists as different as Piet Mondrian and Jasper Johns. Guest curators Juliet Wilson-Bareau and David Degener built Manet and the Sea (2003) around Manet’s The Battle of the USS “Kearsarge” and the CSS “Alabama” of 1864, a history painting in the Philadelphia collection in which a US Navy corvette sank the Confederate ship Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg. There have been exhibitions that brought new attention to the centrality of landscape as a genre in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, such as Renoir Landscapes (2007) and Van Gogh: Up Close (2012). Rishel and Thompson were also the curators of Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting (2015), which highlighted the role of the gallerist who championed Impressionist painting from a period of controversy and novelty to one of commercial success. In all these cases, the resulting exhibition catalogues were serious scholarly tools.

Traditional exhibition catalogues have generally included such information as a work’s provenance (ownership history), exhibition history, and bibliography. In recent decades, catalogues have come to embrace a new model and have included more substantial essays, more comparative works (especially those not in the exhibition), and less documentary information for the objects included. A book like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art could have styled itself as a handbook of the museum’s collection or a reference book for scholars. The authors chose not to include such information as provenance and exhibition history. Increasingly, larger museums are putting that kind of documentation online, where it is easily accessible by scholars and where it can be continually updated as new discoveries are made. One can hope that the Philadelphia Museum of Art will indeed make this information available online in the near future.

Jennifer Thompson’s introductory essay paints a clear picture of the key patrons whose interests shaped the museum’s Impressionist collection. No figure was more important in this history than the American painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). She “encouraged the young Louisine Elder (later Mrs. Henry Osborne Havemeyer) to purchase a Degas pastel in 1877,” Thompson informs us, and by 1880, Cassatt’s brother Alexander, the first vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was buying Degas, Monet, and Pissarro (p. 12). Not only would Alexander and his wife acquire nearly thirty Impressionist paintings, but other railroad executives like Frank Thomson would go on to travel to France and seek Mary Cassatt’s help in purchasing Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. Anna Riddle Scott, a cousin of the Cassatts and the widow of the former president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, also took advice from Cassatt and bought Manet’s Emilie Ambre as Carmen (c. 1879). Alexander Cassatt’s lawyer, John G. Johnson, would eventually acquire more than ten Impressionist paintings in addition to Manet’s “Kearsarge” and “Alabama”; Johnson’s extensive collection, including Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Gustave Courbet, would become the “most important group of works ever entrusted to the museum.”[1] Cassatt connections continued to bear fruit for the Philadelphia Museum of Art for decades to come. Thompson relates that museum chair Joseph Widener “oversaw the purchase of nine works from the estate of Lois Cassatt—three Monets, two Pissarros, a Renoir, a Cassatt, a Degas, and a Manet,” a purchase that “single-handedly gave Philadelphia a respectable Impressionist collection” in 1920 (p. 15). Twenty-five Cassatt prints were given to the museum by the artist’s niece and nephew in 1927, notes Thompson, and “the donation marked the beginning of the museum’s Impressionist print and drawing collection” (p. 16).

Entries for individual works spotlighted in the catalogue generally include one additional illustration. Thompson and her colleagues often use these illustrations to contextualize the work in the collection. Cassatt’s A Woman and a Girl Driving of 1881, for instance, is accompanied by a period illustration of a woman driving a carriage (p. 78). A carte-de-visite photograph of Émilie Ambre as Carmen appears alongside Manet’s painting of the same (p. 68). When Monet painted his Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil in 1873, the bridge was newly rebuilt after its intentional destruction during the Franco-Prussian War to try to halt the advancement of the Prussian forces; the catalogue reproduces Jules Andrieu’s photograph of the collapsed bridge in 1870–71 (p. 44). We see a page from one of Van Gogh’s letters in which he describes, and sketches, a project of creating a modern triptych or polyptych with seven or nine canvases of Sunflowers (like the Philadelphia painting) surrounding a painting of a modern “Madonna,” his 1889 painting La Berceuse (p. 131). In these examples and many more, the catalogue entries provide the kind of contextual illustration that anyone from a general reader to a professor teaching a survey course would find helpful.

It is clear, however, that the entries are not aimed at specialists, even if some essays broach the subject of changing interpretations or controversies. Although I applaud the inclusion of the Andrieu photograph alongside Monet’s Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, I have to wonder why the reader is not directed to Paul Hayes Tucker’s canonical Monet at Argenteuil, which not only discusses the history of the rebuilt bridge but also the place of the Philadelphia canvas in a long series of works in which Monet represented the bridges in Argenteuil.[2] Likewise, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art possessing not one, but three of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet Cézanne, I have to question the rather abbreviated entry meant to cover all three. Susan Sidlauskas’s lucid study of the portraits could so easily have been quoted, at least to illuminate the striking animation of the brushwork in the portraits (especially catalogue numbers 37 and 38, pp. 100–102).[3] Noting, as Thompson does, that the portraits are among “Cézanne’s most psychological and affecting works” does not inform readers about many twentieth-century critics’ claims as to the portraits’ supposed object-like and impersonal qualities that Sidlauskas and others have effectively refuted.

Other publications by these scholars are indeed cited in the bibliography, which is titled as a list for “further reading.” Of course, it would not make sense for a catalogue aimed at the general reader to wade into the thick of every scholarly debate, or to provide a dissertation-like literature review. Yet it is precisely the concision of the catalogue entries and the appropriateness of so many of the companion illustrations that make me yearn for more in some places. That is not to say that a one-page essay aimed at a visitor to the museum, not necessarily a scholar, cannot still communicate something singular. Rishel’s entry for Cézanne’s Quartier Four, Auvers-sur-Oise pairs the painting with a work by Pissarro from the period when the two artists worked closely together: The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise (1875) from the Brooklyn Museum. In two paragraphs, Rishel takes the reader through the observations and formal decisions that drew the artists together as well as differentiated them (p. 48). Likewise, Thompson’s entry for Paul Gauguin’s The Sacred Mountain (Parahi Te Marae) of 1892 broaches the issue of cultural appropriation with crystal-clear text, a reproduction of an ear ornament from the Marquesas Islands, and a reference to research by Gloria Groom and her colleagues at the Art Institute of Chicago, proving that political debates can indeed be deftly handled in four hundred words or fewer (p. 158). 

In the end, the book’s aim to create a substantial introduction to a broad selection of works as different as a Pissarro etching, a Toulouse-Lautrec watercolor, and a Rodin bronze was more than fulfilled. Even Philadelphians who frequent the museum probably do not know how the Impressionist collection took shape, and even many Cézanne scholars probably do not know how the museum came to be such a center for Cézanne study; both questions are answered by Jennifer Thompson’s introduction. For anyone—general reader or scholar—who has been moved by a work in the galleries, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands as both a beautifully illustrated imprint of the collection and an informative introduction to the riches it contains.


[1]. Françoise Cachin et al., Manet, 1832–1883 (Paris and New York: Réunion des musées nationaux and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983), 221.

[2]. Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 57–87.

[3]. Susan Sidlauskas, Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 79.

Citation: Nancy Locke. Review of Thompson, Jennifer A.; Rishel, Joseph J.; Owens, Eileen; Rub, Timothy, eds., Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55313

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