In the late 19th century, French Impressionists were considered the rebels of the art world. They turned away from the idealized neoclassical work of the time, embraced ordinary subject matter and experimented greatly with different forms of light and color.
Opening at Longmont Museum this week, “Enduring Impressions: Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Their Printmaker George William Thornley,” gives an intimate glimpse into unique signed and numbered lithographs made in collaboration with the three named Impressionist artists and their elusive printmaker.
“It is a collection that has only rarely been seen,” said Kim Manajek, director of Longmont Museum. “This is the first exhibit in Colorado. They share a story from the Impressionist movement that gets little attention, so it’s extremely exciting to be able to host this show.”
The original lithographs are part of the private collection of fine art belonging to Dr. Morton and Tobia Mower. The Denver couple invited esteemed art curator Simon Zalkind into their Cherry Creek home to view their extensive collection and, while there, he became fascinated with the more moderate, smaller-in-size works that — in addition to being signed by notable icons — all seemed to bear the name of a man he had never heard of.
“I was surrounded by a world-class collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist work,” Zalkind said. “The Mowers gave me complete access.”
He left the avid collectors’ dwelling with a fervent desire to learn more about George William Thornley and the compelling, yet understated, collaborations.
“The information on these was so paltry,” said guest curator Zalkind. “There was just a minor entry on Wikipedia. Finding out about them took a lot of sleuthing, but it was very rewarding. The most rewarding aspect was having the opportunity to bring these to light.”
Zalkind spent long hours searching the web, calling on art world contacts, consulting with Morton Mower and shifting through records to find out more about this little-known printmaker who collaborated with many greats.
“To get enough information was an undertaking,” Zalkind said. “It was kind of like doing detective work. I thought, ‘How come these aren’t better known?’ It seemed to to be an important, but neglected, footnote to Impressionist history.”
What he discovered is that Thornley was not only a printmaker, but also a prolific painter whose subject matter often depicted ships within choppy and serene waters — nautical seascapes inspired by his journeys to Normandy and the French and Italian rivieras.
Thornley was first introduced to drawing and watercolor painting by his father, a Welsh immigrant. He also went on to successfully explore the mediums of oil painting and engraving.
“The human interest aspect is as compelling as the art,” Zalkind said.
Through his research, Zalkind learned of the legal battles between Pissarro and Thornley that surfaced after a project of theirs was a critical success, but a commercial and financial flop that resulted in Thornley being court-ordered to pay Pissarro the money he had lost on the project.
Monet, who wasn’t a fan of printmaking, turned down the requests of numerous dealers and publishers that wanted him to make prints, yet he somehow was persuaded by Thornley to explore the option.
“He moved Monet to embrace this project rather than resist it,” Zalkind said.
While the lithographs lack the range of vibrant hues synonymous with the Impressionist art style, there is much beauty and intrigue to be found in their often-muted palettes and black-and-white aesthetics.
“Different people come away with different responses,” Zalkind said. “Others may see them as sketchy — preliminary drawings that will evolve into greater paintings, but I find them all stunning”
From a wide-eyed corseted ballerina with arms outstretched in the Degas and Thornley piece “Dancers” (1898) to a female clutching freshly cut blooms in the Monet and Thornley almost-opaque work “Young Girl in a Garden at Giverny,” the mysterious pieces capture the wonder of everyday life.
They highlight the magic in the mundane.
“Compared to these artists’ major works, these prints are surprisingly modest,” Zalkind said. “To me, it’s finding hidden treasure.”
Despite being initially criticized for its loose brushstrokes and deemed sloppy by certain critics of the time, Impressionism has proven to have unrelenting staying power and is one of the most revered and widely admired artistic styles.
In addition to the draft-like lithographs, the exhibit also features original colorful Impressionist paintings from the Mowers’ extensive collection; 53 pieces total adorn the walls of the Longmont Museum.
“In many ways they illustrate the shift into the modern era,” Manajek said. “The industrialization revolution can be seen in the smoke of trains, experimentation is embedded in the spontaneous strokes, leisure life dominates the subject matter. They capture an important historical transition.”
The work of Impressionists has a snapshot quality that often serves as a reminder of the fleeting-nature of life. There’s also a palpable rhythm, that can be found on the canvases, that evokes images of rustling trees and in-motion subjects.
“I would like everyone to have an authentic, individual response to the works,” Manajek said. “I’d like to encourage viewers to look closely and play detective with the lines. In many cases, calm may be the reaction, but it could also be anticipation, or excitement, or uncertainty, or awe. There are no wrong answers.”
Keeping safety in mind, visitors can purchase tickets that will reserve them a specific time slot to view the work that will be on display through July 18. The pieces are also available to take in through a virtual format. In-person admission is $5 for students and seniors, $8 for adults and free for members.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
“Just the names, Degas, Monet and Pissarro are kind of mind blowing when they show up at a regional museum,” Zalkind said. “That alone is pretty seductive.”