The exhibit, “Masterworks of American Impressionism,” just ended at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News. How exciting to view works by Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent among others. Photographs do not do justice.
Neither do teachers who still, in the year 2014, insist that art is prettified repetition limited to an old fashioned textbook definition. “What is art?” one of the docents asked a group of school children recently.
“It’s drawing inside the lines,” a wee one responded.
At least she brought her class to the gallery.
“Drawing inside the lines” was a perfect, nearly scripted setup for the docent’s explanation. There is far more to art than staying inside the lines. In fact, the Impressionists did not stay often inside the lines, either linear, literal or figurative. The point of their movement was to blur the edges of tradition and realism, to take the viewer on a visual journey of emotion and texture and light, to create familiar subjects in a somewhat realistic manner that disintegrates into dots and squiggles and smears when the viewer stands close, forcing one to cry, “How did she do that?”
Movement—the stroke of a brush or palette knife creates curves of paint that cup the light, blur the edges, launch motion. How to stay inside the lines when your intent is to create light? To emphasize a rounded form, transparent fabric, the glow of a sunlight through the curve of an ear? How to stay inside the lines, why to stay inside the lines when a wide, flat stroke of white on warm gray can create a 200 page book like the one being held by the reader in “Man Reading”? Yes, my favorite piece in the show. I just couldn’t stare at it enough. I wanted to devour it, as though the paint were whipped cream. That swift, sure touch of white to indicate the pages—pure genius.
If the students who toured the exhibit came away with a smidgen of that idea, they will have learned more about art than all of their elementary school education combined.