"They were looking at each other's work," McNamara says, and cherry-picking from the other's advantages--photography's informality and painting's editing capabilities, for example. Painters fiercely carried that informality banner into Impressionism. Manet's On the Beach, for instance, depicts a bather posed almost like an Odalisque on the sand. It could hardly be less formal or more scandalous to the Parisian art sensibility. Photographers, who couldn't edit unwanted things out of the photos, did paint on their negatives or put two together, sometimes not even from the same location.
Back then, no one knew how these sometimes competing, sometimes cooperative influences would pan out, much as we don't know what results will emerge from today's media. But thanks to the scholarship and a decade of dogged work by McNamara and many others at UMMA, wheedling rare works from the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre, and museums all over the United States, we've got a focal point trained on the nascence of Impressionism.
Truthfully? The lure of Impressionists is why I came. Three Monets? Including The Sea at Le Havre, over which I drooled? They didn't disappoint. But I stayed for the scholarship--the narrative, the extras. See the exhibit, which continues through January 3, on a guided tour if you can--there are several this month, beginning November 4--just for the stories.
[Originally published in November, 2009.]