The AGO is currently showcasing an exhibit of Impressionist works that highlight the era of industrial growth in France. The show, titled Impressionism in The Age of Industry, brings together an impressive collection of artists in a completely new context – this isn’t the typical ballet dancers Degas is known for, nor is it the lovely lilies of Monet’s masterful hand. Torontonicity was invited to check out the show that draws a gorgeous parallel between Paris during its booming growth, and our very own Toronto heading towards its future, during an exclusive tour with the AGO’s Assistant Curator of European Art, Dr. Caroline Shields.
The show opens with a timeline that captures the rapid growth and expansion of Paris during the era of developing industry – roughly the 1850s to 1900. The entrance is meant to set the tone for the entire exhibit, and at this point guests are immersed in the sounds of steam engines, busy crowds, and train tracks playing in the background that would have occupied the daily lives of the artists whose works are featured just a few steps ahead.
Visitors are then greeted by the iconic The Shop Girl, by James Tissot. Dr. Shields pointed out on the tour that this painting marks the shift in the daily lives of Parisians, as the use of glass in shop windows allowed for pedestrians to “window shop” on their casual Sunday strolls. The streetlights in the background also mark a modernization that meant walks could be enjoyed later into the night – all courtesy of industry and growth.
The space that surrounds the shop girl depicts the years before Paris hosted the World’s Fair and introduced the Eiffel Tower to everyone. It shows the extremely rapid rate of modernization, when the wide boulevards replaced the older medieval streets of the past – infrastructure and development happened at an astoundingly rapid rate.
Not only were the surroundings of the Parisian people changing, but the way they moved was too. The second area of the show focuses on trains and railways, and the new reality of living with growing presence of steel giants. You can watch a video of Dr. Shields talking about the gorgeous Le Pont de L’Europe by Gustave Caillebotte here. When you’re in this area, make sure to take a close look at my personal favourite: Jean Beraud’s The Place de l’Europe – the pop of bright red is so gorgeous that it completely distracts from the overall grey dullness that would have become the new reality of life with factories.
The third area of the exhibit focuses on waterways. A small section, but make sure to take a close look at Camille Pissarro’s two works located directly behind Constantin Meunier’s gorgeous bronze sculpture, Longshoreman. When you step close to Pissarro’s work, you understand how this style of painting obtained its name: each individual brushstroke is visible from close-up but take a few steps back and the colours take on new life and seem to dance as they bring an entire scene of the daily grind to life. We see the drifting movement in the smog, and the bustling streets it floats overs.
Passing through a short hallway, guests move into the gallery that focuses on the bodies and the people that make the new life of advancement and luxury possible: the factory workers. Take a moment to appreciate Maximilien Luce’s work, and the entire range of colours he uses to depict what most people would see as a dark space. Luce’s The Steelworks is stunning, and uses everything from the most vibrant magenta, to the darkest forest green so perfectly that warmth seems to emanate from the painting itself.
I absolutely adore that the curatorial team chose to focus on women in the labour force in this section. It wasn’t only men and factory workers who brought this new modern life to France, but women who worked as caregivers to children, masseurs, and housekeepers in various capacities. Mary Cassatt is an Impressionist who is often forgotten, but her brushwork is stunning. In Children in a Garden (The Nurse), you feel as though you know exactly what the adorable features of the small crouching child look like. Once again, upon closer inspection, the rosy glow of pinchable cheeks is just the culmination of perfectly selected colours.
The next section (with the gorgeous salmon walls) contains paintings that aren’t as famous, but well worth a close inspection: Van Gogh’s A Woman with a Spade, Seen from Behind and Emile Bernard’s Breton women with Rakes. Both have been placed against a saturated salmon wall that make their colour palettes pop, but in completely different ways. Van Gogh has contrasting earthy greens, while Bernard’s mustardy tones are complimented by the subtle warmth of the background shade.
Finally, the show comes to an end with a gorgeous trio by Claude Monet. On the tour, Dr. Shields spoke about the gorgeous use of colour that made Monet so famous, and his ability to depict the density of the air with pastel shades.
Impressionism in the Age of Industry is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 5, 2019 but trust me, you do not want to wait until the last weekend to catch this exhibit. This is a wonderful collection of works that will delight art history fans, as well as infrastructure and city planning junkies. Make sure to get your tickets as soon as possible, and don’t be afraid to bring the kids! The visitor experience team at the AGO included some interactive stations that are fun for even the smallest of art fans – so consider adding this exhibit to your list of March Break activities in Toronto. Enjoy!