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Review: Kimbell’s “Faces of Impressionism” offers something to love in every gallery

The Kimbell Art Museum has scored a huge coup: the Musée d’Orsay has sent more than 70 impressionist paintings and sculptures, the most it has ever loaned, to Fort Worth.

The pieces, from such luminaries as Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot and Claude Monet — as well as the artists who followed them: Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh — will be on display through Jan. 25 in “ Faces of Impressionism: Portraits From the Musée d’Orsay.”

“This is as important as the Barnes exhibit,” enthuses Kimbell deputy director George T.M. Shackelford, referring to the 1994 exhibition that holds the Kimbell’s attendance record. The Barnes collection in Philadelphia and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris have similar draws: They are both heavy on the public-pleasing impressionists. So it is very possible that this effort of Shackelford’s could topple the Barnes numbers.

Shackelford is a specialist in Degas, and he opens the exhibit with one of the artist’s most pivotal paintings, The Bellelli Familyfrom 1858-60. This early work, which depicts Degas’ aunt and her husband and daughters, was something the artist kept in his studio throughout his life and was only seen by close friends. Upon his death in 1917, it came as quite a surprise, for its size (it’s huge), for its strange family dynamic and for the fact that he had kept it so long.

It is an unconventional family portrait, as the father turns his back to the viewer, and his wife, Degas’ aunt, known to be a fractious personality, stands behind her daughters looking dour. She is dressed in mourning for her father, recently deceased. There is obvious tension between the adults that pervades the scene and raises questions in the viewer’s mind.

This painting foreshadows the variety of works to come, as there are conventional head-and-shoulders portraits but just as many unconventional ones in the exhibit. Shackelford and curatorial cohort Xavier Rey of the Musée d’Orsay have pushed the boundaries of what might be considered a portrait. They include groups and genre scenes for their compositions or for the pictorial resonance of the faces.

“We deliberately sought to highlight the Impressionist’s varied engagement with portraiture including a wide and disparate selection of images,” they write in their catalog introduction. It was also a way to cherry-pick their way through the galleries at the Musée d’Orsay and abscond with a heady group of more than 70 spectacular works — many of them rarely seen in this country.

Degas painted a number of portraits throughout his career but was only commissioned once, and he was unable to finish that piece, says Shackelford. His sales of ballet dancers and horse races supported his practice.

Renoir, on the other hand, was a very successful portraitist, and his pretty, plump young women — infused with an apricot glow of good health — found willing buyers, including the French government. The first impressionist work to enter the French national collection was Renoir’s Young Woman at the Piano, a commissioned piece that was requested a decade after he first began painting young lovelies at the keyboard.

The exhibition is split between the portraits made solely for the painter and those made for patrons. Thrown in the mix are paintings by successful portraitists of the time, such as Alfred Stevens and James Tissot, whose pieces illustrate why they were the preferred documentarians of the elite. Their clients are shown in splendid finery, and the painters take elaborate care to show every tuck and ruffle of the wardrobes.

Tissot was exceptionally skilled in the nuances of organdy, but he didn’t break any new ground. His fame lasted his lifetime and rankled the artists who struggled then but are the headliners now.

Often the strugglers were forced to paint the only available models — friends, family and other painters. The lovely artist Berthe Morisot is seen twice in the exhibit in paintings by Edouard Manet. A young Monet is painted by Renoir; an older Monet is painted by Frédéric Bazille.

Henri Fantin-Latour orchestrated a large group of artists and writers to stand around with the serious look of bankers while Manet works at an easel.

Often there were no ready models, so selfies were the artist’s only recourse. Excellent self-portraits by Gustave Caillebotte, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin are some of the highlights of the exhibit.

While Shackelford and Rey attempt to school us on the nuances of portraiture and expand our appreciation through their deft presentation, it is really just glorious excess. From Renoir’s The Reader, with her shock of red hair, to van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, with the short, radiating brush strokes that emanate from his eyes, there is something to love in every gallery.

It may be the saucy curl on the forehead of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Portrait of Justine Dieulhor the somber reflection in Caillebotte’s gaze shortly before he gave up painting in frustration and began collecting better artists’ works.

There are good stories and excellent illustrative moments in the catalog and on wall texts for the studious, but for visitors who like the visceral joy of immersing themselves in the reflected glow of luminous art, this is the exhibition to do exactly that.

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