Nashville museum showcases French artistic treasures

Manet’s “Le Fifre” (The Fifer) is one of the paintings on display at the Frist Center in Nashville for “The Birth of Impressionism.” | Submitted Photo by Hervé Lewandowski

By Daniel Callicott

Bold brushstrokes cover canvases that revolutionized the art world and ushered in the modern era. Many Impressionist works do not portray a clear image, but instead attempt to convey certain emotions or impressions.

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened the “The Birth of Impressionism” to the public, Oct. 15. The exhibit will run through Jan. 23 and features more than 100 pieces from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The exhibit affords visitors the opportunity to view works outside of France from artists such as Monet, Whistler, Degas and Renior.

A press release from the center stated the show will only travel to three cities: Madrid, San Francisco and Nashville.

On Oct. 13, the Frist hosted a media preview for “The Birth of Impressionism.” Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said he was excited to have the exhibit in town.

“This exhibit is a huge deal, and we are honored as a city to have this incredible artwork on display,” Dean said as part of an opening speech for the exhibit.

Mark Scala, chief curator for the Frist, and Stéphane Guégan, chief curator of the Musée d’Orsay, led a tour through the exhibit, explaining the significance of the paintings. They discussed the process of working together to select the paintings from the collections of the Musée d’Orsay that would most accurately relate the story of Impressionism.

“From the conception of this exhibit we have tried to rethink Impressionism and place it in a new context,” Guégan said. “Never has the story of Impressionism been told in this way.”

Guégan said this was because the paintings on display at the Frist had never been grouped chronologically before. In the Musée d’Orsay, the paintings are distributed through multiple unconnected galleries.

Guégan said the most critical element for students to understand about the exhibit is how extreme Impressionist works would have been for audiences of the late 1800s.

“This exhibit puts context to the Impressionist movement,” Guégan said. “Impressionism was a radical break from the artistic norms of the times.”

Scala and Guégan explained how established artists of the time — the Salon painters — would have viewed their Impressionist counterparts. They said the Salon painters tried to reinvent classical art and maintain artistic traditions, while the Impressionists rebelled against convention.

In contrast to the decorum of the Salon or neoclassical painters, Scala said many Impressionist painters created works with a more earthy feel. Also, unlike many Salon painters who focused on the lives of the wealthy, many Impressionists painted impoverished people.

“The Impressionists represent the poor as if they have value, and for these painters, they do,” Scala said.

Another distinction between the Impressionists and Salon painters is the portrayal of the mundane. Impressionists, such as Cézanne, took ordinary items such as bridges and turned them into works of art.

These Impressionists’ ideas sparked the artistic movements leading to modern art forms. However, Scala said the story is not simply one of transition and he encouraged visitors to enjoy the beauty of the works and not overlook the period as simply a precursor to modern art.

Admission is $12 for college students with a student ID and $5 on Thursday and Friday evenings from 5–9 p.m. For more information on the exhibit, visit

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