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The art everybody loves 

The Arts Center's 'Impressionists.'

IMPRESSIONIST'S LANDSCAPE: "Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil," is part of the Monet grouping at the Arts Center.
  • IMPRESSIONIST'S LANDSCAPE: "Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil," is part of the Monet grouping at the Arts Center.

There are 119 pieces of art — 120 if you count the two-sided Toulouse-Lautrec — in the Arkansas Arts Center's "The Impressionists and Their Influence" exhibit that opens Friday, and you will want to spend some time with virtually all of them.

No, there are no Monet haystacks here, or Tahitian Gaugins or Seurat pointillism. Manet's "Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" remains safely in France. But all those artists are represented — the Monets are particularly fine — and while the Arts Center hasn't turned into the Musee d'Orsay, it has so much to offer in this exhibit that you'll need to go at least twice, if not three times, to take it all in.

Everybody loves impressionist work, so it's hard to conceive that when it was new, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was as unacceptable to the critics as art, as cans of Campbell's soup were 100 years later. It wasn't strictly representational and its subject matter was contemporary life, not important moments in history.

"Everybody loves" is not an exaggeration, which is why I can write this review using the artists' last names and nobody wonders who I'm referring to. This popularity is perhaps on the minds of those who run things at the Arts Center, still recovering from its budget-busting "World of the Pharaohs" exhibit of Egyptian artifacts that opened in the Early Dynastic Period and ended last July. (It actually ran only seven and a half months, but surely seemed much longer to both Arts Center regulars and bean counters alike.) There will be no sticker shock here — the tickets are a very reasonable $10 tops (less for seniors, youth, military, etc.), free to members — and the Arts Center can count on a good crowd to see some very lovely drawings and paintings, from the Arts Center's collection of works on paper, as well as paintings and drawings from the collaborating High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Jackson T. Stephens Charitable Trust for Art, and private collectors.

The star of the show is Monet's "Houses of Parliament in the Fog," 1903, a painting so ethereal as to be barely there. Monet painted parliament repeatedly, as he did his haystacks and the cathedral at Rouen, to capture the variety of light. This version of "Houses of Parliament" from the High teeters on the edge of beauty, threatening to fall into indifference, but stay with it a bit.

There are four Monets in the exhibit, arranged in chronological order to show the artist's evolution, interim Director Joe Lampo explained at a press preview last week. The earliest is "Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil," 1873, also from the High, a beautiful canvas of yellows and pale pinks and blues and greens, the dabs of color giving the impression of leaves (to the horror of the Academy), the short strokes the impression of their reflection in the water. In between that and "Houses of Parliament" are two richly painted Monets, one depicting an apple tree in full fruit and the other a river at dusk, both the property of the Stephens Trust and on loan to the Arts Center for several years.

Pissaro's "Snowscape with Cows at Montfoucault" is a small beauty, also from the High, painted in whites and masterfully subdued thalo greens, with the tidiest lines preserved for the cows being walked down a snowy lane. Another Pissaro, "Kensington Gardens, London," from the Stephens Trust, is fascinating in its odd technique. Painted 16 years after "Snowscape," Pissaro is experimenting here; he's placed figures in saturated reds and greens and purples atop a flatly-rendered field of sketchy green grass, like cut-outs. In that same off-track vein is one of the show's many (and wonderful) Vuillards, his "La Villa Les Ecluses, St. Jacut, Brittany," painted with big patches of flat color. The Arts Center's own "Le Peintre Forain," a 46-inch tall pencil by Vuillard, one of my favorite works in the AAC collection, is tucked away here.

A surprise for those of us who have only skimmed the surface of impressionist art history: Ker-Xavier Roussel and his "Sleeping Diana." This painting by Roussel, who was of the Nabi school rather than impressionism, is crazy fascinating, focusing not on the rural, but the mythical, and not the atmospheric but on wild combinations of hot bright reds with deep aquamarines. A dark skinned woman robed in orange could have stepped right from Gaugin's work into this canvas.

There's much more here, including work by the Americans — Cassatt, Hassam and Glackens. The exhibit closes June 26.

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