Renowned impressionist portraits on view at the Kimbell

Jocelyn Tatum

Fort Worth Business Press Correspondent

A woman with sad heavy eyes looks off into the distance. One of her daughters stares fearfully at you with a clenched jaw. Her sister has her fists on her waist and looks away as if she doesn’t want any part of it. Their father, in a chair with his back to the onlooker, peers over his shoulder with an indignant disinterest in his own family.

This is Degas’ Bellelli Family Portrait, one of the most famous impressionist paintings ever produced, and will be in Fort Worth for the exhibition, Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from the Musée d’Orsay Oct. 19, 2014-Jan. 25, 2015, in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion. This early work of Degas’ has only been in the U.S. once before, when displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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“The show is certainly a high point in the Kimbell’s history,” Kimbell director Eric Lee said. Lee and deputy director George Shackelford believe critics, historians and art lovers will come from all over the world to see the exhibit in this unique setting, which is “the largest-ever loan of portraits from the collections of the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie” in Paris. “People will be interested in the story the exhibition tells…the faces in the portraits have multiple levels of meaning,” Shackelford said. Internationally respected impressionism scholar and local art critic, Richard R. Brettell, has spent his life studying these works publishing many books and articles on the French impressionists and teaching at Harvard, Yale and the University of Texas. “The relationship between one great museum in a capital city and a smaller museum in a smaller city must be very good to create the right conditions for pictures of this level of importance to be exhibited in the smaller institution,” Brettell said in an email. “The fact that North Texas has a museum as wealthy and as rich in masterpieces as the Kimbell means that we can see works of art that other comparably scaled cities in America cannot.”

While some patrons may have already seen Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ, Renoir’s Portrait of Claude Monet or one of the other 74 notable impressionist paintings in this exhibit in New York or Paris, nobody has seen them at the Kimbell, which is internationally respected for its use of natural light.

“Even if you saw them at the Musée d’Orsay, you’ve never experienced them in this intimate setting with this amazing light,” Lee said. The Kimbell opened its new pavilion designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop nearly a year ago. This expansion has been paramount to how the museum now operates when powerful exhibits like this one come to town.

“This is proof of what we can do now,” Shackelford said. The expansion allowed the museum to keep its entire permanent collection on display in the original building designed by Louis Kahn, while filling the ethereal galleries of the Piano Pavilion with the Faces of Impressionism. The Kimbell’s galleries are about movement, changing light, narratives and vivid colors parallel to the impressionist portraits on display inside.

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“They stood out because they created a completely different style of painting than the scenes from history and mythological tales that were considered mainstream at that time,” Lee said. “They turned their eyes to the world around them,” Lee said. Most of the French impressionist artists were contemporaries, mentors and even dear friends. They preferred to paint their friends and families, rarely taking on a commissioned work. “Most were painted out of love. It gave the painters enormous freedom. It gave the artists total control,” Shackelford said.

Hence the portraits reveal deeper narratives of life, such as Degas’ aforementioned family portrait of his beloved aunt that tells a story of marital strife and familial discord. All of the faces in the portraits will tell patrons similar stories with a gesture, a grin, a sideways glance, squinted eyes or just by the background scenery. For this reason, Shackelford said the patrons will be able to get up close to the artists and see their personalities. “I think this has the potential to be one of the Kimbell’s most important exhibitions ever,” Shackelford said.

“The artwork was selected and arranged with real discernment that provokes thought and provides entertainment. Our job is to enchant and teach.” Days before the exhibit opened to the public, one of the Kimbell’s guards walked into the gallery and saw Degas’ Bellelli Family Portrait for the first time. In awe, he told Shackelford that he had always been able to admire the painting in books, but he never thought he’d get a chance to see it in person. This is the reaction that organizers are hoping the exhibit receives from visitors throughout the region.