Next month, the city [of Sydney] will play host to no fewer than 29 paintings by Monet from the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The paintings form the backbone of an exhibition called Monet and the Impressionists, which comes to Sydney for 3 1/2 months after a stint in Japan.

Amazingly, despite having sent most of its Monets overseas, the MFA has Monets enough in reserve to impress. The depth of its holdings is astounding. Even more amazing is that, of the more than three dozen paintings by Monet owned by the MFA, only three were actually purchased. The rest were gifts.

What made Bostonians so sympathetic to Monet and his fellow impressionists? The answer is intriguing, for it is not cashed-up collectors or far-sighted critics who get the credit so much as Monet’s fellow artists.

The first painting by Monet to appear in Boston — a seascape — appeared way back in 1866, when the artist was in his mid-20s. It failed to find buyers. So did the three Monets sent to Boston in 1883 by Durand-Ruel: an early salvo in his campaign to convert America to impressionism.

Bostonians may have been “open-minded, curious, quietly sophisticated, well-travelled and well-heeled”, as Nicholas Grimshaw, president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, put it.

But not every New Englander was immediately seduced by the new style of painting. One local critic called the show “an odd and incongruous affair” and an “assortment of perverse and burlesque canvases”. Monet, he wrote, was “scarcely worth serious attention”. Still, despite dissenters and sceptics, Boston, more than any other US city, was predisposed towards the new kind of painting practised by Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. It had been the first American city to fall in love with progressive French painting of the 19th century and especially the paintings of Barbizon school artists such as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Jean-Francois Millet. These artists were to be enormously influential on the impressionists.

“Bostonians, in the 1880s were still very much under the sway of Barbizon style: chiaroscuro, tone and paintings that seemed to be ‘of the earth’ were still very much prized,” according to George T.M. Shackleford, chairman of European art and curator of modern art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The taste for Barbizon dates back to the annual salon of 1850-51. In Paris that year, a young, charismatic artist and former Harvard student called William Morris Hunt bought a painting by Millet, The Sower.

When Hunt was introduced to Millet, they became friends. Hunt moved to Barbizon to work alongside Millet and served as a witness to his second marriage.

He returned to the US in 1855, married the daughter of one of Boston’s wealthiest men and strongest supporters of the arts, and became Boston’s leading taste-maker.

Hunt and those under his influence shunned the slick finishes and fastidious detail of French salon artists such as Jean-Leon Gerome and William Bouguereau. Preferring the landscapes of Corot and Gustave Courbet, “they favoured pastoral scenes of modest scale and often expressed enthusiasm for paintings that others dismissed as unfinished”, according to MFA curator Erica Hirschler. (Many impressionist paintings could be described in similar terms.)

New Yorkers had more ostentatious tastes. The upshot, noted critic William Howe Downes in 1888, was that any American dealer “who had a good Corot or Courbet (was) obliged to send it to Boston in order to sell it”.

The 1880s may have been years of crisis for impressionism in France, but it was the key decade in America’s incipient love affair with Monet and his cohort. Durand-Ruel’s tentative foray in Boston in 1883 was followed by a splashier exhibition in New York three years later. This may have aroused extra curiosity in Boston, but according to Shackleford, it was really artists who opened minds.

Even before any paintings by Monet were owned by Bostonians, American artists were making pilgrimages to Giverny, Monet’s home. By the late 1880s, they had formed a sort of colony there.

“A few pictures just received from these young men show that they have all got the blue-green colour of Monet’s impressionism and ‘got it bad’,” wrote one critic.

John Singer Sargent, in particular, played a crucial role. He had been friendly with Monet since the 1870s and spent part of the summer of 1885 in France, when he is believed to have sketched Monet at work in Giverny. The sketch in question shows Monet working on one of the paintings that would go to New York in 1886. Sargent, who was at the height of his powers during these years, returned to Boston in 1887, widely lauded. His endorsement of Monet counted for a lot.

Collectors from Boston started snapping up Monet’s work in France, where his popularity was steadily rising. By 1892, when Boston’s StBotolph Club, a local fraternity of arts lovers, held a solo exhibition of Monet’s work, there were already 40 paintings by Monet in Boston collections.

After this, as Hirschler put it, “impressionist pictures came to Boston in such quantity and through so many different channels that the adoption of the style by local artists seems inevitable. Even if they did not travel to France, the city’s painters could see these modern canvases in exhibitions at home.”

If you put aside the city’s early grounding in Barbizon painting, it’s hard to say why Boston should have been such fertile ground for impressionism. But early critics were quick to make links between the “pure eye” of Monet and a term coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson: the “transparent eyeball”.

Emerson, who along with the other American transcendentalists was very much a product of Boston’s intellectual milieu, advocated the most direct experience of nature possible. “Art should exhilarate, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist,” he wrote.

Paul Cezanne famously described Monet as “only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” The description chimes nicely with Emerson’s: “I am nothing; I see all.”

Several travelling exhibitions that focused on the MFA’s superb impressionist collection have been organised in the recent past.

They include Impressions of Light (2002-03) and Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape (1999). The latter show inaugurated an ongoing contractual relationship between the MFA and its Japanese sister museum at Nagoya.

The present exhibition, focused on Monet but including works by his impressionist contemporaries and the Barbizon artists who influenced him, comes to Sydney from Nagoya. It coincides with the MFA entering the final stage of a massive new building project costing more than $US500 million ($596 million). Australian galleries frequently benefit from rebuilding projects at more glamorous overseas museums. In recent years we have been visited by highlights from the Musee d’Orsay and the Orangerie in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as each of those museums underwent renovations.

Shackleford points out that while rebuilding at the MFA has resulted in less space in the “impressionist zone,” they can send a show like this abroad “without taking a big hit”. A visit to the MFA bears him out.

The Australian

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