Consider blurry landscapes. Face it, America, this is what we show each other.
Multimillion-dollar Monets in Park Avenue apartments are sublime blurry landscapes. The corny "Thomas Kinkade Style" paintings offered on the Internet ("Handmade, Museum Quality . . . $189.99 & Free Shipping!") are kitschy blurry landscapes. Somewhere in the middle are the composed vacation snaps processed at the Fotomat, and the cow-and-cottage lithographs in the hotel room above the couch.
The summarizing glimpse, not too tightly detailed, of greenery and distance and sky-reflecting water may be the one image we most easily and often recognize as art.
It wasn't always thus.
Though many blurry landscapes specify the moment -- this one shows us moonrise, that one shows us dusk, or wintertime, or spring -- they do not vary much. That timeless nature always changes is their standard theme. The swift, accepting glance is its means of presentation. Its display was once regarded as a bohemian subversion, but not anymore. Now it's conventional propriety. Its pedigree is French.
How it spread among us is nicely sketched by two exhibits now in Baltimore. "The Road to Impressionism: Landscapes From Corot to Monet" is at the Walters Art Museum and "In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny" is at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and they're related. They tell a complex story. One might begin it spookily, in wild woods at night.
It is, say, 1837. The woods are the forest of Fontainebleau, 45,000 acres, reserved for royal hunts in the days when France had kings. Now it's a wilderness. A light. A covered lantern. A lone figure swathed in shadow is limping among the trees.
The story ends in sunlight with a wedding in Giverny. It is July 16, 1892. A young American artist named Theodore Butler is marrying the stepdaughter of the impressionist Claude Monet. Theodore Robinson, who's the hero of the show at the Baltimore Museum, painted a picture of their wedding march that is flickery and suggestive. What it suggests is another deep embrace -- the one of American popular culture and French impressionism -- which, as we know, hasn't ended yet.
The man limping through the forest has no right to be there. He's a twice-wounded ex-soldier named Claude Francois Denecourt. He has a brush and a paint pot. Denecourt (1788-1875) is marking hiking trails, quite unofficially. Every now and then he stops to paint a blue arrow on a rock or on a tree.
Denecourt's "blue footpaths" matter in the history of art because they opened the forest of Fontainebleau to the scruffy Paris painters whose oils are at the Walters -- Theodore Rousseau, Virgile Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, Jean-Francois Millet, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Barbizon is the name of village where they hung out. They weren't the sort of painters who patiently depict every blade of grass or each leaf of the willow tree, if that is a willow tree. They didn't have much time. The light kept changing. They were fast.
Their paintings, too, are fast. And owe a lot to trains.
The railroad reached Fontainebleau in 1849. By the mid-1850s, Denecourt's forest guidebooks (he sold them at the station) showed 90 miles of walks and explained 1,000 sites. By 1860, 100,000 day-trippers from Paris were coming out each year. Many were painters. Denecourt encouraged them. He artistically improved the forest's deep romantic grottoes, and he named its biggest oaks for big important painters, the "Rubens," the "Ruisdael. " One of these great trees, depicted by Diaz, is portrayed in "The Road to Impressionism" at the Walters. The title is right. Impressionism began at Fontainebleau. Lots of the impressionists (Monet and Renoir, Robinson and Sisley) painted in the forest. They were doing something new.
The academies insisted that fine drawing was the soul of art, but the daubers in the woods scarcely bothered drawing. They didn't idealize, either, and that was worse. True artists were expected to classicize their subjects. That's what made art art. Reality was vulgar. To paint it as you found it was to stick your dirty thumb into the public's eye.
Shuddering at such ugliness, the Count of Nieuwerkerke, the art adviser to the emperor, condemned the blurry landscape in 1863. What we now find genteel the count dismissed as coarse. "This," he said, "is the painting of democrats, of those who don't change their linen, and who want to put themselves above men of the world. This art displeases and disgusts me."
The count, of course, was right. Blurry landscape painting is the art of democrats. It is in sync with popular culture. Here are some reasons why. It's speedy. Until the trains began to roll, almost nobody had ever traveled faster than a horse. The detail-deficient landscapes they devised seem to have been painted for people in a hurry. No wonder the impressionists loved the railroad. They painted in its stations, wallowing in the steam, and they didn't mind the noise. The line to Giverny went right through Monet's garden, rumbling by his lily ponds four times every day.
Our life goes faster and faster. No one driving the Beltway has enough time to ponder the shadows, or tell one tree from another. A glance is all you get. Blurry landscapes, too, suggest the ceaseless rush. They may not show the city, but nonetheless it's there, just outside the frame. Blurry landscape shows the countryside. Still, it's urban art.
It also is high-tech, or at least it was. The brightest of its colors (cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, emerald green) were produced not by nature but by chemists in laboratories. Simon Kelly, the curator of the Walters show, begins his exhibition with a display of these new colors, which pop. The count found them inexpressibly vulgar.
The blander blurry landscapes that hang in our hotel rooms are there to offer comfort. They say: God is in His heaven, the clerk is at the desk, all's right with the world. The paintings made at Fontainebleau, in their gruff rejection of academic niceties, were far less reassuring. They showed a distrust of the past.
In 19th-century France, of course, there was much to distrust. The Revolution had beheaded the king. That hadn't worked. The revolutionaries had beheaded each other. That hadn't worked either. Napoleon, too, had failed. The rightness of tradition was once again discredited when the Prussians marched through France and hurled their shells at Paris in 1871. In that short and ugly war, which collapsed the Second Empire, 160,000 died.
By the time that Theodore Robinson found his way to Giverny in 1887, the conflict between old and new had been pretty well decided. Newness had mostly won. The painter from America -- he'd been born in Vermont, raised in Wisconsin, and trained at the academies of Chicago and New York -- wasn't any sort of a rebel. He came to Giverny as a pilgrim. The man he called "the Master," who had lured him to that two-street town, was, of course, Claude Monet.
Robinson already had tried Barbizon. He'd first summered near Fontainebleau (along with the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1877. He'd painted there again in 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1887. When he made his way to Giverny, Monet's sort of painting, bright and free and colorful, already had become a style one could teach.
Making Robinson and Monet exhibit head-to-head does Robinson few favors. "It is in many respects a cruel comparison," says the Baltimore Museum's Sona Johnston, who curated the show.
Robinson is a very good American impressionist. He's better than that. He's a good impressionist, period. His images are pleasing, his modesty attractive. He understood the light. But the American's short brush strokes are often repetitious. And his structural geometries (all those stiff diagonals) tend toward the unsubtle. Still, his better pictures shimmer. There is sunlight in their air. Robinson was very good. Monet was great.
Robinson understood this. He didn't rebel, he didn't compete, he promoted the Master diligently. The work of Claude Monet, he wrote in the Century Magazine in 1892, is "influencing the epoch."
Monet's star was rising, perhaps more in America than in his native land. Robinson helped that happen, perhaps especially in Chicago, where he still had many friends. Chicago's M.A. Ryerson bought his first Monet in 1891. He soon owned 17. Between 1891 and 1895, Chicago's Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer purchased 50 more.
Baltimore's William Walters had been buying new French landscapes since the 1870s, when such a choice seemed daring. By the end of the 19th century, blurry landscape painting, once a form of protest, already had become a favorite of rich Americans. Soon it would become a favorite of the masses. It still is.
The Road to Impressionism: Landscape Paintings from Corot to Monet will remain at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., through Jan. 17. For information call 410-547-9000.
In the Light of Monet: Theodore Robinson at Giverny will be on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., through Jan. 9. For information call 410-396-7100.