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Neo-impressionism explored through exhibit’s portraits

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From thousands of splotches of color faces emerge.

One painting captures the gentle and regal posturing of a French woman, her deep green eyes and blushing cheeks offset against her white dress.

Another shows a trio of little girls, with expressions varying from bored to pensive to confident. Vincent van Gogh painted his own self-portrait, showing his sensitive and weary expression in complimenting orange, blue, red, green, yellow and violet.

The portraits proved a way for artists to capture the soul and essence of a person. That quality is on full display in a newly opened exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait” focuses on the brief period of artwork in the late 19th century, in which artists used small bits of color to create visually stunning scenes.

“An exhibition on this subject has never taken place before — in a gallery, in a museum, anywhere,” said Ellen Lee, co-curator of “Face to Face.” “So much about neo-impressionism is about brilliant light and color, so many of these paintings are of outdoor scenes. This whole genre has never specifically been studied before.”

It is the first time portraits from the era have been pulled together in one exhibition in the U.S. For art enthusiasts, it is an opportunity to see works from French, Belgian and Dutch masters such as van Gogh, Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce and Théo van Rysselberghe.

“Many of these paintings are very rare, so it’s hard to get a group of them together,” Lee said. “This is a rare opportunity, since there are not a lot of examples of these paintings. It’s not easy to borrow them, and they come from all over Europe and America.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art was a natural choice to help line up and organize the exhibition because of its existing collection of neo-impressionist artwork, said Charles Venable, museum CEO.

With one of the most important collections of neo-impressionist portraits, landscapes and other pieces in North America, the museum has been a leader in the study of artwork from this period, Venable said.

The neo-impressionist period was a firecracker in art history, catching fire and burning out in the span of about 10 years. It put a new spin on the existing impressionist movement, maintaining its use of color while creating more structure.

The leader of this new style was George Seurat, a painter working in Paris, France. Influenced by 19th century scientific discoveries about light and color and how the human eye perceives it, he was rigid in his use of certain colors together to created explosive paintings.

“He thought the impressionists were working very quickly, and he was a personality who liked a more orderly existence,” Lee said.

‘Very specific look’

Lee and her co-curator, Jane Block, came up with the idea to do an exhibition entirely dedicated to the portraits done by neo-impressionist artists.

“The idea was to take this very specific look at this time period and also use it as an occasion to explore the variety of portraiture,” Lee said. “It’s a fairly narrowed focus for an exhibition, but we tried to take it in as many directions as we could.”

Some of the paintings came from the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s own collection. But many had to be arranged through loans from private collections and other museums.

“Morning, Interior” by Maximilien Luce came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. George Lemmen’s “Mademoiselle L. (Portrait of the Artist’s Sister)” is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri Edmund Cross’ “Madame Hector France” was borrowed from the famous Paris museum Musee d’Orsay.

“We had to really push to get this here because it normally hangs in the gallery at d’Orsay. It’s not in storage or anything,” Lee said.

To establish a foundation about the neo-impressionist era, an entire gallery is dedicated to describing how these artists approached color and light.

A display case of scientific treatises helps explain how those color combinations work and sets the scene for color mash-ups found in many of the exhibition’s paintings.

“I’ve been teaching people about neo-impressionism for years, and I’ve always struggled between wanting the people to be offered an explanation but not making it so complicated that people are turned off,” Lee said. “We’ve tried to equip people with this information, if they choose to use it.”

More than paintings

The exhibition also aims to expand how people think of portraits.

“There are self-portraits, there are very formal portraits, there are traditional poses in edgy styles,” Lee said. “It’s nice to able to look at how these paintings changed over the years and to do these visual comparisons.”

The exhibition includes what has been confirmed as the first portrait every done in the neo-impressionist movement, “Portrait of Mademoiselle B.” by Albert Dubois-Pillet.

Afficiandos of art history will recognize the melancholy portraiture of van Gogh in an early self-portrait.

“Though he went on to establish his own style, he lived in Paris for a year in 1887 and was influenced by all of these avant-garde styles. He had been painting very dark pictures, and he got to Paris right when this was becoming known, and his palette suddenly changed.”

One of the most unusual and engaging works is by Signac. “Opus 217” portrays art critic Felix Feneon, who was covering Signac and the other neo-impressionists. Feneon stands before a swirl of colors and styles.

“I think it’s the most amazing portrait of the movement in neo-impressionism. It looks like the 1960s,” Lee said.

The exhibit is supplemented by activities, games and technology to help visitors explore the neo-impressionist movement. Tables in each gallery let people learn more about particular paintings and artists.

Displays allow visitors to play with color the way the neo-impressionist artists did. Another station gives them a chance to take a photograph of themselves, then pixelate it to appear as if it’s been colored by one of these painters.

“We tried to make it accessible to people from a lot of different ways,” Lee said.

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