It's not every day that a Rockefeller hands over an extremely valuable painting, a prized possession from a private collection to share in a public museum, in Indiana no less -- especially a piece so cherished that it hasn't left its New York City home for more than 30 years. Yet that's just what happened for the Indianapolis Museum of Art's newest exhibit, Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904.
David and Peggy Rockefeller loaned their Paul Signac oil on canvas to the IMA (after originally declining the request). Upon seeing the show's impressive catalog and reading an additional plea from the exhibit's co-curators, the couple generously agreed to share the coveted portrait by one of the great icons of the movement.
Entitled Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, the wildly colorful painting shows Fénéon, an art critic of the time who actually coined the term "Neo-Impressionism." Its quirky, long title indicates Signac's sense of humor.
This latest IMA exhibit is an impressive collection like no other -- in the world -- ever. Ellen Wardwell Lee, the museum's Wood-Pulliam senior curator and Jane Block, a professor and head of the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, knew they were onto something a decade ago when they conceived the idea for the show. They've worked together researching and procuring the pieces ever since.
Block says there have been other Neo-Impressionist exhibits, but they've dealt with landscapes, seascapes and figure painting (people within a landscape, for example), but never Neo-Impressionist portraits.
"I discovered that there was a large body of works in Belgium and France that had been overlooked," says Block. It was the portraiture of the Neo-Impressionist movement.
Block says she and Lee proposed the exhibit because they wanted to change how people thought about Neo-Impressionism in general. They realize that most don't even know what it is. There's a general understanding of Impressionism because of widely known artists such as Monet and Renoir, but not so for the Neo-Impressionism style.
"Neo-Impressionists or 'new Impressionists' were artists who wanted to supply their paintings with great luminosity and vibration," says Block. "That may be clearer when you look at seascapes or landscapes, because that's what you think of -- luminosity and nature and letting light in. But portraits also glow in a way that, based on the color theory and the latest scientific theories of the time, [Georges] Seurat was incorporating into his work."
Seurat studied the treatise of Ogden Rood, an American physicist and "color scientist" who was also an artist. Rood talked about the difference between mixing two pigments of paint from a tube onto a palette (which produces a muddy effect), versus superimposing two rays of light to create white light. Seurat wanted to replicate that idea of light in his works. The Neo-Impressionist movement was pioneered by the scientific color theory and dotted brushwork used by Seurat.
Ultimately, it was this amalgam of science and art, but Lee says you needn't know how it works to appreciate it.
"I don't think the theory explains the emotional response you have to the portraits," she says.
"You don't have to understand color theory or know anything about Neo-Impressionism to enjoy these paintings; they're just beautiful and exquisite as art objects."
Face to Face, which runs now through September 7, features 50 pieces (oil paintings and drawings) from 17 artists, including Vincent van Gogh (yes, his famous Self-Portrait is on display), Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. The works come from personal collections and from museums as close as the Art Institute in Chicago and as distant as Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Another surprise in the collection is the trio referred to as the "family reunion." The three larger-than-life-size portraits of siblings (the Séthe sisters) were created over the course of six years by Belgian painter Théo van Ryssleberghe, during the height of his career. But each painting made its way to museums in different countries -- in France, Belgium and Switzerland. Their appearance at the IMA is the first time ever in the U.S. they've been displayed together.
As far as art movements go, that of Neo-Impressionist Portraiture was short-lived. Block says it was brief for a number of reasons, one being the unexpected early death of Seurat at age 31 and the death of Albert Dubois-Pillet (the very first painter to apply Neo-Impressionism to portraiture) the year before him. But also, it was a challenging painting style.
"It was a taxing technique that was a tough thing to master," says Lee. "There was a certain burnout factor, and I think that's one of the reasons the movement was so short-lived."
Because the exhibit, too, will have a limited time at the IMA, Lee reiterates what a special honor it is for Indianapolis to have this collection available.
"I'm encouraging people to take advantage of what a rare opportunity this is to have these pieces together in Indianapolis," she says. "They're coming from all over America, all over Europe and for a really brief moment in time."
To complement the exhibit, the museum also offers for sale The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904 catalogue (which is actually a nice, fully illustrated 260-page coffee table book about the movement) authored by Block and Lee, along with contributions from French scholars Marina Ferretti Bocquillon and Nicole Tambrini.
"It's about anything that's related to Neo-Impressionist portraiture, so the book will have a life after the show's closed," says Lee.
Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904 will be open through September 7, 2014 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children and free for museum members.
A special free talk with curators Ellen W. Lee and Jane Block takes place 7 p.m. Thursday, June 19 in the museum's DeBoest lecture hall.