March 2017 marks a momentous opening for The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Kansas City — the installation of the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art in six new galleries devoted to European art from 1750 to 1950. This is the first time the 29 works of paintings, works on paper and sculpture donated by Marion and Henry Bloch are shown with the museum’s renowned collection of 19th-century paintings, sculpture, decorative arts and works on paper.
This gift, along with the generous support of the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation to transform the galleries, allows the museum to tell new stories about this fascinating period of history. It was a time when the old world of an agrarian, land-owning aristocracy was replaced by burgeoning new cities, innovations in technology and a growing middle class that had more time for leisure pursuits. In addition, women first participated in the work force in great numbers and there were new forms of transportation and industry. The speed of change, although now accelerated, was not far removed from the one we are experiencing today.
If you walk through the new Bloch Galleries beginning with the European art of the early 1800s, you will see imposing portraits of ladies and gentlemen in their finest clothes installed near landscapes picturing rolling fields with cows and sheep. In the 1850s, the scenes change and become more emotional, filled with drama, as artists were drawn to depict nature and man in their most dynamic moments. During the 1870s, French artists also began to show less aristocratic subjects and turned to exhibiting more realistic works with laborers and peasants. All of these works lead to the centrepiece of the Bloch Galleries: the Impressionists and their circle and the Bloch collection.
Until it was donated to the Nelson-Atkins, the Bloch collection was one of the last great collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings still held in private hands. It is noted for the quality of masterworks by artists both in and around the Impressionist group, such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Eugène Boudin as well as Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the only woman member of the Impressionists, Berthe Morisot. The collection also includes extraordinary paintings by Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, as well as early modernists Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, and the first painting by Henri Matisse to enter the museum’s collection.
With this extraordinary gift, the galleries are able to tell more profound stories about individual artists such as Manet, an artist who bridged the divide between an older, more academic group of painters, and the Impressionists. Two Manets from the Bloch collection show an intimate side of the artist’s life: The Croquet Party from 1871, depicting friends and family at a seaside resort, the wind whipping at their clothes, and the poignant White Lilacs in a Crystal Vase, painted at the end of Manet’s life when he was confined to his bed and could only paint the bouquets brought by friends.
Other highlights include an additional Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré, Sun Effect, Afternoon, from 1898, which complements the museum’s famous Monet Boulevard des Capucines, of 1873-74, both illustrating the radical changes in the urbanization of Paris in the 1850s, when the cramped, dirty and sewage-strewn streets of the metropolis were bulldozed to make way for wide boulevards lined with trees and new gas streetlights, ideal for strolling and shopping day and night.
Soon artists such as van Gogh experimented with catching light and atmosphere in new ways. The Blochs’ gift of van Gogh’s Restaurant Rispal at Asnières (1887) shows a working- class eatery in a suburb outside of Paris, painted in a new technique of applying pure colors side-by-side in separate brushstrokes. The addition of Bonnard’s The White Cupboard — Marion Bloch’s favorite painting — illustrates the 20th century’s new interest in abstraction, as the figure of the artist’s wife, seen from the back, is surrounded by pattern and blocks of red, white and yellow. In Matisse’s Woman Seated before a Black Background, painted in the South of France in the midst of World War II, a very modern woman dressed in a symphony of brilliant colors catches our attention with her direct gaze. The galleries close with an exploration of works from the major Modern movements of Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism and the Bauhaus school of integrated art and design that followed World War I.
With its diversity of subjects, styles, techniques, media and historical time periods, the new Bloch galleries are sure to capture the imagination of all visitors.
–Catherine L. Futter, Ph.D. Director, Curatorial Affairs