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November 14, 2013

Water, water everywhere

New PEM exhibit ties impressionists to tradition of maritime painting

Impressionism was a revolution in technique that captured the way the world is bathed in light and constructed by color.

But its practitioners were also fascinated by certain subjects, which they turned to repeatedly.

“Lily pads, haystacks, ladies in white, cafes in streetlight, theater and ballet,” said Lynda Hartigan, chief curator at Peabody Essex Museum. “I’m betting that these phrases conjure images of some of the world’s favorite and most famous impressionist paintings.”

But a new exhibit at the museum, “Impressionists on the Water,” wants to show that impressionists were equally fascinated by subjects we associate with a different kind of painting altogether.

“This is a show that is about impressionist painting, and it’s about maritime painting,” said Daniel Finamore, curator of maritime painting. “We all know that the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 was a revolution in style, a new movement in European art. But this show takes a broader trajectory, first setting the stage with European painting heritage, and in maritime art.”

Impressionism’s marine connection is established in the first gallery by Monet’s “Regatta at Argenteuil” and Armand Guillaumin’s “The Seine,” both of which appeared in the movement’s initial exhibit.

Monet’s painting is set in a town outside Paris that was a favorite destination for recreational sailors and which appears in several other paintings in the show.

“It’s an archetypal impressionist painting,” said Christopher Lloyd, co-curator for “Impressionists on the Water,” which first appeared at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. “It’s a modern subject. It’s very loosely painted brushwork. You can see part of the original canvas below the surface, allowed to appear through. And it’s got exhilarating color.”

The historical background to both these works is provided in a gallery devoted to “Masters of French Marine Art,” where paintings from the 17th century communicate information about the features of ships and the harbors where they anchored.

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