In preparing to attend the lunch hosted by the Speed Museum to preview their new exhibit of over 80 French Impressionist works I wanted to pay homage to these masters by wearing something colorful and romantic. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised and appreciative to find the tables also dressed for the occasion with beautiful flowers in bloom and real tableware settings. The Speed Museum understands the importance of setting a tone.
A burst of color in celebration of the new exhibit at the Speed.
Director-CEO Charles L. Venable looked dapper and poised as he explained from the podium how the exhibit came to be at the Speed Museum. Two years ago, while attending a conference in Florida, he and Kevin Sharp, the Director of Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, discussed their holdings of Monets and Rubens. They came up with the idea of swapping collections for exhibits at each museum. This has never been done before, but according to Venable, “In this economic climate museums are doing things in a more entrepreneurial way. This is the way things are headed.”
Kevin Sharp reiterated that this swap is a collaboration in the truest sense. “We both decided that we were going to send each other the very best from our collections,” Sharp said. “I promise the Dixon has not held back anything from you.”
While the Dixon Gallery enjoys Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting  over 70 paintings from the Speed collection, the Speed Museum hosts Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color, an exhibit comprised of 55 paintings from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens and nearly 30 works from Speed’s collection as well as public and private collections throughout Kentucky.
Ruth Cloudman, Chief Curator of the Speed Museum, spoke in an even and calm voice about the pure bright colors and quick brush strokes of the Impressionists and the many details, the visible and the cultural, which can be found within the works. She also introduced the newest Speed Museum acquisition that is included in the show, the Pont des Saints-Pères or the Bridge of the Holy Fathers by Henri-Joseph Harpignies. At first look, this impressive painting seems to be about trees until you look closer to find that the trees beautifully frame the Saints-Pères Bridge as well as the French pedestrians who cross it.
Henri-Josheph Harpignies. The Pont des Saints-Pères, 1870 (detail).
The exhibit walls are painted in Benjamin Moore colors such as Silken Blue, Mystic Lake and Antiqued Aqua reminiscent of the jeweled tones of the ocean. The vibrato of Edith Piaf singing “La Vie En Rose” echoes through the gallery. The exhibit begins with a quote by the French poet Charles Baudelaire challenging the painters of the late 1860’s to “[m]ake us understand, with brush or with pencil, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and leather boots.” The French Impressionists succeeded by depicting French modern life as vibrant and enchanting.
On view are portraits, scenes of daily life, still lifes, landscapes, interiors, and of course ballerinas. The styles may differ from artist to artist, but each contributes to the distinct characteristics of the Impressionist movement. The long, thin brushstrokes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captures the indifferent gaze of a seated dancer.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Dancer Seated on a Pink Divan, about 1883.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir applies thick layers of paint to canvas in order to illustrate the forceful and choppy movement of a rogue wave.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Wave, 1882.
Camille Pissarro foreshadows Pointillism and uses small patches of pure colors to recreate the scene of a small orchard as viewed from his studio window.
Camille Pissarro. View from the Artist's Studio at Éragny, 1894
One drawback is that there isn’t a catalogue for this exhibit. The museum store offers a book about the Dixon Gallery that features reproductions of some of the works in the exhibit, but there isn’t one specifically for it. However, the collaborative efforts of the Speed Museum and the Dixon Gallery & Gardens have created an exhibit that you will want to return to again and again.
Enjoy the experience of Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color  beginning Friday, February 3rd through May 6th at the Speed Museum. Admission to this special exhibit is $5 for members, $15 for non-members. Children under 18 are admitted free to the exhibition with the purchase of an adult exhibition ticket.
photos: Julie Gross