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French Impressionism Stars in the MFAH Exhibit From Monet to Matisse

Claude Monet, "Boats on the Beach at Etretat," 1883
Claude Monet, "Boats on the Beach at Etretat," 1883
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/Mathieu Rabeau. Courtesy of the MFAH, Houston.
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Though he was of German-Argentinian descent and educated in the United States at Harvard, author philanthropist Georges Bemberg (1915-2011) had a passion for France, French culture, and in particular Impressionist art cultivated during his many years of residency there.

Before he died, he created The Bemberg Foundation that oversees the collection, which he gave to the city of Toulouse, France. It is normally housed there in the art gallery of its permanent home in the Hôtel d'Assézat.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Portrait of a Young Girl," 1879.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Portrait of a Young Girl," 1879.
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/Mathieu Rabeau. Courtesy of the MFAH, Houston.

But Houstonians will have a rare opportunity to see 90 paintings and works from the collection in the exhibit Monet to Matisse: Impressionism to Modernism from the Bemberg Foundation, running through September 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Houston is, as of now, the only U.S. destination for the exhibit. “It’s a really great opportunity to see some fine French paintings from a private collection that really hasn’t traveled, and certainly not to the U.S.,” says Helga Aurisch, Curator of European Art for the MFAH.

Represented in the exhibit are many of the Big Guns of French artists from the late 19th/early 20th centuries including Claude Monet and Henri Matisse of the title, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gaugin, and Henri de Toulouse-Latrec.

“It is visually very appealing and also has this wonderful backstory of a really dynamic group of revolutionary artists who broke away from the establishment,” Aurisch explains.

“And really set in motion this whole idea that you could go outside the limits of academic art and the establishment. It’s a hard struggle sometimes, but in the end it makes for a wonderful story. And they succeeded.”

It’s no surprise that Impressionist art—and particularly that of the Gallic variety—have been hugely popular and successful for the MFAH as the theme for many exhibits in recent years. Aurisch offers that it’s not difficult to discern why.

“Impressionism is relatively easy to digest. It doesn’t have heavy historical backgrounds or religious imagery. It’s basically landscapes and portraits,” she offers. “The artists’ calling was to paint modern life. So they documented life in the streets of Paris and in nature, and it’s very appealing.”

But when collecting, Bemberg seemed to have his eye more on one particular painter than others, and not one of the names recognizable to the general public: Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947).

Pierre Bonnard, "Landscape at Le Cannet, c. 1922."
Pierre Bonnard, "Landscape at Le Cannet, c. 1922."
Photo © RMN- Grand Palais/Mathieu Rabeau. Courtesy of the MFAH, Houston

Of the 90 works in Monet to Matisse, Bonnard is responsible for more than a third of them. He is known for his use of color and as a co-founder of the Nabis school of art philosophy, where the majority of artists had a particular interest in painting intimate scenes of the interiors of homes. Aurisch says a smaller subset embraced Symbolism influenced by Japanese art.

“I don’t know why Bonnard was so special to Mr. Bemberg, but he obviously was,” Aurisch says. “He stands somewhere between the Impressionist and Modern movements, but he had his own personal style.” She explains that Nabis is a Hebrew term which means ‘the prophets.’ “It was an alternate religion in art they wanted to pursue. They even had a temple in the apartment of one of the members.”

Her own favorite work in the exhibit is a Bonnard still life of irises and lilacs, a tribute to Van Gogh. She is also “greatly moved” by a self-portrait he did two years prior to his death.

“It’s really a very sad portrait. He’s looking at himself in the mirror of his bathroom in the south of France, and it’s pared down. His face and upper body are sparsely painted, and his eyes are darkened out,” she describes.

“It’s a very pensive, very sad portrayal of this great artist at the end of his life.” But, she adds the there is some hope. While the tiles of the bathroom are all white, when seen in the mirror’s reflection they are a radiant green and gold.

Aurisch says that the exhibit is a “broad array of some fine works,” and an unexpected complement to the MFAH’s own permanent collection of French Impressionist art, much of it collected by longtime Houstonian philanthropist/MFAH patron Audrey Jones Beck (1924-2003), who has a building on the Museum’s campus named for her.

“This is a great opportunity to compare and contrast the collections. And while Mr. Bemberg collected for his own pleasure, Beck did it to share, to teach about the evolution of French painting,” Aurisch says.

In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for Beck to invite art students to her home to see works on display there. And you can see both collections in the same visit.

“They’re close together, cheek to jowl. You just have to walk across the atrium!” she sums up. “So it’s nice to have this moment. Beck and Bemberg developed their love for French art at the same time and were in the market at the same time.”

Monet to Matisse: Impressionism to Modernism from the Bemberg Foundation runs through September 19 in the Beck Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main. For more information, call 713-639-7300 or visit MFAH.org. Tickets timed for entry, $18-$23.

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