The Hermitage Amsterdam is currently home to two complementary exhibitions. The first, Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration, with a tagline explaining that the works on display are ‘Highlights from the Hermitage’, endeavours to place the Impressionists within their French Nineteenth Century context. It shows Neoclassicists Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme, the Romanticism of Delacroix – who Van Gogh regarded as the supreme colourist, and about whom he wrote in September, 1888:
‘Now, it is true that I see in impressionism a resurrection of Eugène Delacroix, but as the interpretations are both divergent and also rather irreconcilable, impressionism cannot yet formulate a doctrine. That is why I am staying with the impressionists, because it means nothing, and commits you to nothing, and as one of them I do not have to take up any position.’
– and intermediaries, including Charles-François Daubigny and Carolus-Duran, alongside Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and Renoir.
The second exhibition, entitled simply Vincent, with the subtitle ‘The Van Gogh Museum at the Hermitage’, shows a selection from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection whilst that museum is undergoing refurbishment in order to meet updated Dutch safety and security regulations. The exhibition is organised thematically rather than chronologically, the seven themes comprising, in order, ‘Practice makes perfect’, ‘A style of his own’, ‘The effect of colour’, ‘Peasant painter’, ‘Looking to Japan’, ‘The modern portrait’, and ‘The wealth of nature’. Whilst some of the earlier themes in particular are conceptually slight, the exhibition itself is coherent and succeeds in providing novel points of connection. Impressionism is open until January 27; whereas Vincent will run until the end of April, when the Van Gogh Museum will reopen with a major exhibition celebrating the museum’s fortieth anniversary, to be called Van Gogh at Work.
I visited Impressionism last weekend, and especially admired a painting by Cézanne, Banks of the Marne (1888). Cézanne achieves in this painting one of the purest and most convincing depictions of water I’ve seen; and he does this by largely replicating the river bank in the water below, presenting a reflection that is almost a mirror image. The trees and the residence on land appear reflected at the same angle, and with the same dimensions. Cézanne’s palette – with its predominant blue-greens offset by the white villa and its ochre roof and balcony – also remains constant, with the darker tones in the water serving to differentiate and providing a sense of depth. Whilst there is nothing amounting to a rippled brushstroke, the short and dense diagonals which give the trees their matter are replaced in Cézanne’s water by looser horizontals.
Around 1888 when Cézanne painted Banks of the Marne, he also worked on a number of other water paintings, experimenting with different ways of representing, different ways of bringing his canvases together. Bridge over the Marne at Créteil, with its view looking down the river, features geometric curves and larger blocks of colour as trees, reflected in the water with vertical rather than horizontal brushwork. From the same period, the more abstract Bridge over a Pool consists of a mass of vivid green diagonals which encroach upon and enclose the bridge, the water only delineated by some darker tones and shadows; and Aqueduct and Lock repeats Banks of the Marne‘s trick, the aqueduct immediately mirrored in the water below, here slightly extended and outlined, with unfastened foliage hovering above on each side.
Banks of the Marne recalls an earlier work, Zola’s House at Médan (or Le Château de Médan), which Cézanne completed between 1879 and 1881, Zola having bought the house in 1878. The painting depicts the banks of the Seine – of which the Marne is a tributary, running southeast from Paris – in an unusually rigid and symmetrical fashion: whereas Banks of the Marne is broadly split into river bank and river, here the canvas is divided into the five horizontal sections of river, river bank, houses, hills and sky, with tall trees rising vertically at regular intervals between the houses. Cézanne’s palette is much brighter, the sensation sunnier, with intense yellows, greens and ochres and a bold blue sky. Still, both paintings confront the viewer in a similar way: we look directly across a stretch of water towards a river bank, densely leafy, something solidly constructed and impenetrable. Like in the later painting, so here Cézanne indicates those reflections in the water through more loosely painted, horizontal brushstrokes.
De Leeuw, R. (ed.) The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, trans. A. Pomerans (Penguin, 1997)