A forgotten chapter of the Impressionist story

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Claude Monet, ‘River and Mill Near Giverny,’ 1885, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Denver Art Museum
Wes Magyar

If ever there was a group of artists to leave a lasting impression, it was the rightly named Impressionists. Dominating the late 19th century, painters like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro produced some of the most beautiful, whimsical and recognizable images in the history of the art world. Focusing on scenes from everyday life and nature, Impressionist compositions are famously characterized by the suggestion of movement and changing light — crucial elements of the human experience. 

Beginning Jan. 29, the Longmont Museum will host an exhibition of some of these incredible pieces, including original paintings, charcoal illustrations and prints. Of particular significance to this exhibition, however, are lithograph works by Monet, Degas and Pissarro, which were the products of close collaboration with fellow artist and printmaker George William Thornley. The relationships these iconic artists had with Thornley, a significantly lesser known artist, is a source of beauty and intrigue in this exhibition — one of the first to examine these relationships and the artistic ingenuity that came out of them. 

The guest curator of this exhibition, Simon Zalkind, along with Longmont Museum director Kim Manajek, worked closely with local art collectors Morton and Tobia Mower (whose private collection also includes pieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol and Lichtenstein) to bring this exhibition to fruition.

Zalkind, who began his career as assistant curator of prints and drawing at the Brooklyn Art Museum, describes the experience of seeing these lithographs for the first time and starting down the rabbit hole of learning about these major Impressionist painters’ collaborations with Thornley. 

Wes Magyar Edgar Degas & William Thornley, Small Dancer, c. 1889, lithograph. Photo by Wes Magyar

“It was an absolutely astonishing experience, seeing these pictures and objects [in the Mowers’ collection] that one wouldn’t be surprised to encounter at the MET,” Zalkind says. “As they were showing me around, every once in a while I came across a small lithograph that resembled some of the major paintings that surrounded them. That they didn’t possess the extraordinary palette of colors and the direct sensorial experiences of brushstrokes — the combination which came, in part, to define Impressionism — made them no less riveting. In fact, their capacity to retain what was essential in the works upon which they were based without dependence upon the strategies and possibilities that paint affords, seemed to me an incredible accomplishment. I found it such an interesting sidebar to an amazing story: the fact that [Thornley] had done such major collaborations and was so little known … it was a story that deserved to be told.”

Lithography, which translates to “stone print,” is a centuries-old printing process reliant on the incompatibility of oil and water to reveal the image molded or etched into the surface. The image is drawn onto a flat, smooth surface with a greasy, oil-based substance (fat and wax were often used), and then moistened. Oil-based ink is then applied, but only sticks to the drawing and is repelled by the water-moistened spaces. Paper is then pressed to the stone, printing the image originally drawn by the artist.

In the absence of color, the Impressionist lithographs accentuate stylistic choices, subject matter and the play between shadow and light. In collaborating with Thornley, the art is distilled into its defining characteristics: Degas’ prints heavily feature ballerinas; Monet’s channel the power and grace of the natural world — his infamous haystacks and sweeping seascapes are notably present — and Pissaro’s emphasize the staple landscapes and cityscapes of his brush work. 

“The history of Impressionist printmaking is not what one typically sees,” Manajek says of the exhibition. “This shows a side of this art movement that is not well known. As the name implies, this movement was largely centered on the idea of capturing an ‘impression’ — the light, the movement, the mood — of a single moment in time. That ethereal quality changes with the change in technique: Lithography literally works the image into stone. The Impressionist artists represented in this show trusted Thornley to interpret their intentions faithfully.”

Wes Magyar Edgar Degas, Two Dancers in the Foyer, 1888, pastel. Photo by Wes Magyar

According to Zalkind, these three artists, Monet, Degas and Pissarro, all approached the idea of printmaking with differing levels of enthusiasm and willingness, with Pissarro, who had already been interested in printmaking, ultimately convincing his peers to participate in the collaborations. Monet expressed a tremendous antipathy to the idea of creating multiple originals, and was hard to convince. Degas, on the other hand, had already been making his own prints, though mostly etchings as opposed to lithographs.

Each lithograph seems to vibrate slightly, as if alive, defying the passage of time while still embodying it. The strokes are light and feathered, loose and even seemingly sloppy. From close-up, these prints may seem a flurry of erratic motion, but when seen from a healthy distance, the picture comes into focus. The detail achieved in these works through such an early method of printmaking is striking; rolling hills and tall buildings, children’s faces, all presented as if in a moody dreamscape, exact yet wavering at the same time.

The relationships between Thornley and these Impressionists have been mostly  overshadowed by the original paintings that achieved world renown. Claude Monet, for example, is a household name, his transcendent water lilies forever etched into the minds of millions of people across the globe. But when printmaking became popular in 19th-century France, it offered a way for people to own these extraordinary works of art at a reasonable price. Thornley, as a master printer, was able to make these artists accessible to the public in a way that hadn’t previously been possible.

“He’s like a forgotten chapter of the Impressionist story,” Zalkind says of Thornley. “There’s never been any scholarly work that I could find about him; I had to glean information from many different sources to compile and get a full picture of his life and work. Once I had spoken to the Mowers about lending their Impressionist collection, and they had agreed to not only letting me take the big paintings but the lithographs as well, I said to [Longmont Museum curator] Kim [Manajek], ‘Would you like a blockbuster?’”

Worth seeing simply for the timeless beauty of these Impressionist works, Enduring Impressions at the Longmont Museum also poses a new perspective on the collaborative relationship of artists during this time period, and the different mediums in which they expressed their artistic convictions.

“I don’t know what a ‘great success’ will mean for an exhibit at a time when it’s hard for people to come to museums,” Zalkind admits. “But I hope it’s compelling enough to draw people in. It’s the kind of show that’s worthy of a major institution, and we have it here in Longmont.”  

ON THE BILL: ‘Enduring Impressions: Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Their Printmaker George William Thornley.’ Jan. 29-July 18. Longmont Museum, 400 Quail Road, Longmont. $8 adults, $5 students/seniors, free for Museum members and children age 3 and younger. Timed-entry tickets are required. Purchase tickets in advance online or by phone at 303-651-8374, longmontmuseum.org.