“Away down here in Savannah there is someone buying better paintings for a little museum than the heads of many of the big museums in the country have had sense enough or courage enough to buy,” said writer Julian Street in his 1917 book, “American Adventures.”
Street was speaking of the city’s Telfair Museum, first opened in 1886 and later expanding to include the Owens-Thomas House and the additional Jepson Center, which will soon be hosting their latest exhibition “Collecting Impressionism: Telfair’s Modern Vision.”
“We’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the first avant-garde art movement to have been collected by our organization,” said Courtney McNeil, chief curator and deputy director for curatorial affairs. “It’s drawn entirely from our permanent collection holdings and it’s looking at American, French and German impressionism. I’ve worked here for fourteen years and these are my favorite paintings in the collection, so I’m excited to be able to talk about them.”
McNeil attributes the collection's success to one of the museum's earliest art advisors Gari Melchers.
“The story starts with Melchers,” McNeil said. “In addition to being our second fine arts adviser, he was a really talented artist in his own right who had our budget at his disposal to travel the world and buy paintings. Melchers is the linchpin to this whole story because he had a taste that was a little more adventurous than our first director, so he was looking at artists who were working more in the progressive styles that were popular in that day.”
The Impressionist movement featured in the exhibition was initially inspired by a divergence away from the Academic style of painting that had previously dominated the art world.
“Impressionism really got its launch in Paris in the 1870’s and made its way to America and other countries by the 1890’s or so,” said McNeil. “Impression isn’t defined by a strict series of traits, really it was about these original artists who were exhibiting together that had their own little artistic rebellion and were exhibiting it in Paris, in their own shows. A lot of them happened to work outdoors and used bright unblended colors, a lot of them were interested in light, shadow, and atmosphere, but beyond that, Impressionism is really just a general resistance to the Academic standards that had come before.”
While attendees are forbidden from touching the works on display, the museum has added a few items to the exhibition to satisfy viewers impulses to touch.
“We commissioned a local artist to paint little squares that are details of the larger painting, so next to some of the paintings there will be a detail painting that people are allowed to touch, to get a tactile experience of the brush strokes that the Impressionists used. We’re also working on is a wonderful touchscreen that is an interactive map of impressionist movements around the world so, for example, you can click on Japan to read about and see images of Impressionism in Japan.”
The exhibition features over 36 works by Childe Hassam, Jean-Francois Raffaelli, and William Merritt Chase, among many others.
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