A bounty of French Impressionists lands at Telfair Museums

By Amy Paige Condon

When Telfair Museums staged “Monet and American Impressionism” three years ago, the exhibit’s narrative arc illuminated Claude Monet’s influence on American painting beginning in the late 1800s. With “Monet to Matisse,” which opens at Telfair’s Jepson Center, 207 W. York St., on September 28, the story digs deeper and expands ever wider into a movement that was scandalous and considered avant-garde for its time.  

Although French Impressionism—characterized by vivid hues, unfinished brush strokes, light and shadow, and graphic techniques such as pointillism—is revered by the masses now, France’s prevailing critics at the time slung the word “impressionist” as a slur against artists deemed unworthy of Paris’s storied salons, explains Telfair’s chief curator, Courtney McNeil. “These artists were rebels and wore the insults proudly.”

Monet and his cohorts Jean-Baptiste Corot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, among others, were accused of “window dressing and infantile daubing” as they sought to push past the constraints of the academy. They depicted the simple pleasures of café society, dancers backstage, rustic fields and unmanicured gardens—not the noble, the notable or the historic. Light and color meant everything to them, but they followed no strict coda for expression. They sniffed at industrialization but took full advantage of Paris’s new urban plan that widened the boulevards and invited painting en plein air. Their works appealed to France’s growing middle class, which began collecting the accessible and affordable art at the independent salons the artists organized themselves.

It’s possible, muses McNeil, that Toulouse-Lautrec’s nod to both Degas and Manet, Seurat’s The Picnic, and Raffaeilli’s cityscapes—all on loan from Memphis, Tennessee’s Dixon Gallery and Gardens—were shown together back in those salons so long ago. American artists John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt are included in the exhibit because of their close association and study alongside of the masters of French Impressionism. “[Cassatt and Sargent] were so much a part of that scene,” explains McNeil. “They were at the vanguard of this movement as it was going on.”

The 30 paintings show the evolution of French Impressionism, beginning with Corot’s The Paver of the Chailly Road, Fountainebeau and encapsulating Cézanne’s first forays into cubism.

“Works like this—it’s incredibly humbling to work with a collection of this caliber,” remarks McNeil, who harbors a bit of a crush on the pieces by Marc Chagall, the post-impressionist painter who experimented with saturated colors and a touch of the surreal. “His paintings are like happy poems to me. His work brings joy to the world. I’m glad to have that here for the first time.”  

If You Go >>

Monet to Matisse: Masterworks of French Impressionism from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, September 28, 2018-Feb. 10, 2019, telfair.org


Members-only Opening Lecture with Kevin Sharp

6 p.m., September 27, Trinity Methodist Church

Members free/advance reservations required

Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, will present an overview of the masterworks of French painting from the museums’ permanent collection. To register, visit telfair.org/monet-matisse.


Curator Tour led by Courtney McNeil

3 p.m., October 14  


Free Family Day

1 to 4 p.m., October 20, Jepson Center


Ross King Events

Ross King is a Canadian novelist and nonfiction writer. He began his career by writing two works of historical fiction in the 1990s, later turning to nonfiction, and has since written several critically acclaimed and best-selling historical works including Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies.


The Heroism of Modern Life: Édouard Manet and the Impressionists

5 p.m., November 6, Jepson Center

$125 cocktails and dinner/$60 cocktails only


Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies

10:30 a.m., November 7, Jepson Center

$75 lecture and luncheon/$35 lecture only