Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.
Everyone knows Impressionism was the first major modern art movement. Without the Impressionist painters’ interpretation of the physical world as a scrim of discrete but promiscuously interlocking units of coloured light there would be no Seurat or van Gogh, and no Cézanne, and therefore no Matisse or Picasso, and no abstraction (no Kandinsky, Mondrian or Rothko). There is no question, then, that Impressionist painters deserve the monikers they attract in all the textbooks: “avant-garde”, “progressive”, “radical”. Does the same apply to the critics and collectors who first recognised Impressionism’s merits?
We are so accustomed to narratives that pit the champions of the new against an obstinate old guard that we imagine these collectors as similarly forward-looking, almost to the point of clairvoyance – as if they had somehow intuited that Claude Monet’s late waterlily...
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