George William Thornley isn’t a well-known figure in 19th century art, but he did have some famous acquaintances, among them some top names from Impressionism’s A-list.
Born in 1857 to an English father and French mother, Thornley made engravings and watercolors, but his most remarkable role was as a go-to printmaker for Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and other artists. They painted the free-wheeling, one-of-a-kind scenes that made them lasting legends and Thornley etched a translation of their work into plates that served as the base for stripped-down, single-color versions that could be massed produced and distributed widely to secure additional profits.
The story of this relationship, new to many of us, is related in a compelling show-and-tell format by curator Simon Zalkind in “Enduring Impressions,” currently at the Longmont Museum. The exhibit provides an opportunity not only to introduce Thornley to a new audience but also to bring a few examples of actual works by superstar artists to an unlikely venue.
Seven masterworks in Longmont? That’s surely a surprise, and an opportunity too good for locals to pass up.
“Enduring Impressions” is the third significant art exhibition culled from the holdings of Denver collectors Tobia and Morton Mower. The Mowers have a sprawling array of art, large enough to have fueled 2017’s “Masterworks” exhibition at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, featuring work from Pissarro, Monet, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-August Renoir, Berthe Morisot and others.
If you go
“Enduring Impressions: Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Their Printmaker George William Thornley” continues through July 18 at the Longmont Museum, 400 Quail Road, Longmont. Purchase tickets in advance due to the pandemic. Info: 303-651-8374 or longmontmuseum.org.
After that came “Rembrandt: The Etchings,” which highlighted a lesser-known talent from one of the 17th century’s most-revered painting icons.
Both of those exhibits were curated by Zalkind, who scoured the Mowers’ collection for its shiniest gems before installing the well-received shows at the gallery he directs in the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at Anschutz.
But, as Zalkind explains in the catalog for “Enduring Impressions,” he was distracted throughout the process by the presence of the Mowers’ extensive holdings of Thornley prints, which fly under the radar of most curators.
He decided another show was in order and turned to his long-time colleague, Kim Manajek, for a place to install it. Manajek recently took over as director of the Longmont Museum.
The result is an exhibition that is unusual in every way. It brings rare works to the suburbs, but also creates a venue for looking at a handful of critical paintings in an atmosphere that is fully relaxed.
This isn’t a blockbuster-style exhibit by any definition. Rather, it’s a casual, dimly lit art cocktail party with a few important visitors on the guest list, and the mix is just right to keep the affair from getting out of hand. There are just seven works by these masters mingling with 28 prints created by the deft hand of Thornley.
If they are not all examples that top museums seek to collect, they are all surely works that explain the reasons Degas, Monet and Pissarro are in the upper tier of Impressionism.
Monet’s 1885 “River and Mill Near Giverny” and Pissarro’s 1872 “The House in the Woods” demonstrate all of the things that defined Impressionism — the respect for nature, the ideal of capturing light in motion, the democratization of subject matter, the freedom to interpret liberally through loose brush strokes.
One work in particular, Degas’ 1897 “Woman at Her Toilet” (in this case her sink), shows an intimate and mature side of the painter that even his fans often overlook. Though this exhibit also has three of his popular “dancer” scenes.
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They may help to bring in the crowds though they don’t overshadow the main draw here, which is ultimately Thornley’s prints.
Each of his collaborations with his more-noted colleagues has its own story, and the exhibition text outlines the narratives succinctly. Thornley’s arrangement with Degas, for example, was brokered by Theo van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh’s brother and a well-known art dealer in his day.
His partnership with Pissarro fell apart and ended up in court. His collaboration with Monet is something of a mystery, Zalkind notes, as far as who was in charge of the printmaking process, though the sets of lithographs that resulted have both makers’ signatures clearly visible on the paper.
Those different relationships resulted in different quality prints, even within the collaborations themselves.
A printmaker working with familiar painters has two main objectives. One is to make etchings that capture the spirit and intent of the originals. The other is to create unique artworks that stand alone, so they are more than copies.
Looking at the works in Longmont, it seems as if Thornley’s communication was most at ease with Degas and Pissarro and more challenged with Monet. In some ways, that makes sense. Degas employed crisp lines in his work while Pissarro was finely attuned to delineating light and shadow. Those things are easier for an etcher to mimic.
Seen through the printmaker’s lens of this exhibition — and it is an interesting and new way to see these overexposed masters — Monet is revealed as a more fluid, emotive and personal painter. Replicating the idiosyncratic responses of this particular artist, through what is essentially line drawing, appears to be more imposing.
Do Thornley’s efforts stand alone? In their way. They carry their own passions and add a rawness that is undistracted by the pretty colors and dainty details that dress up some Impressionist works. They are rough and romantic.
On the other hand, they can lack a depth of soul. Impressionism’s real magic was in its manifestation of light and the tiny degrees of it that our eyes perceive and that these painters captured. In these prints — for example, in Thornley’s etching of Pissarro’s busy, 1895 “Avenue of the Opera,” with its roving carriages and fountains — it’s impossible to tell if the action takes place in day or night or spring or winter. Something very important is sacrificed.
Of course, that’s the way it often is with this process of creating prints from originals — and the process goes back centuries and continues today. Such prints allow the multitudes to enjoy great works, but they are, indeed, secondary objects, and they are driven by transactional motivations.
Still, they have great value, especially here in Longmont. They serve best as primers on the way the original painters saw the world. They are X-rays that explain the structure of paintings, that offer a different way of appreciating and understanding great art. In that way, at least, Thornley is surely a master himself.
And this exhibition is particularly well done. It’s a consumable show that ends with a separate short video and displays of tools that help newcomers understand the art form. If you are fresh to printmaking, it might be smart to take this sideshow in at the beginning. A little knowledge about how a print is made will go a long way toward appreciating this ambitious offering.
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