Impressionists on Paper – Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec review: A jewel of an exhibition

Monet, Van Gogh and Cezanne feature in a pleasurable Royal Academy show that demonstrates why the Impressionists remain the world’s favourite set of artists

Mark Hudson
Wednesday 22 November 2023 06:30
<p>Edgar Degas, 'Dancer Seen from Behind’, c. 1873</p>

Edgar Degas, 'Dancer Seen from Behind’, c. 1873

Impressionism and paper don’t go together. Or certainly not in the mythic story of the birth of modern art; the tale that helped make Impressionism the most reliably crowd-pulling art phenomenon of the past century. In this version of history, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and their mates go rushing out into the landscape with their paints and seize the moment, getting the effects of nature down on canvas before the light changes. The door was blown open on centuries of stuffy studio art – with no time for faffing about with pencils and sketchbooks. Right? Actually, that is completely wrong, as this jewel of an exhibition amply demonstrates.

The birth of Impressionism coincided with technical developments that made paints cheaper and more portable, and good-quality paper more plentiful. The fact that drawings and small painted studies were no longer needed as aids to memory or studies for larger works left artists free to explore these once-marginal mediums as art forms in their own right. So the Impressionists were substantially responsible – contrary to everything we’ve been led to believe – for turning the long-ignored “work on paper” into a significant, and very saleable commodity.

Featuring 77 works from collections around the world, Impressionists on Paper at the Royal Academy shows all the big names of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and some intriguing lesser-known talents, responding to the challenges and opportunities of what was then new technology.

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