Making Impressions

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November 28, 2011

10:59 PM

The College of William and Mary has a long history of providing students with unique experiences and high quality instruction, but Art History 330, taught by distinguished Scholar in Residence Dr. John T. Spike, brings that tradition of excellence to a new level. The students in his seminar collaborated with the staff of the Muscarelle Museum of Art to produce the newest exhibition at the museum, “Seeing Colors: Secrets of the Impressionists.”

The pieces, on loan from the High Museum in Atlanta, Ga., include works by Claude Monet, including “Houses of Parliament in the Fog,” Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and several American Impressionists including John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman.

“In very few other places do undergraduates get to work with Monets or get to work with Pissarros,” Jason Gangwer ’12 said.

The show seeks to highlight five “secrets,” or aspects in the artists’s work not seen in previous pieces. These include painting outside, careful color selection, painting everyday scenes, a recognizable style for each artist and how the artist tries to convey a subjective feeling, rather than simple beauty.

“This glorious exhibition is probably the most important exhibition that the Muscarelle has ever hosted,” Spike said in an interview with WMTV.

The attention garnered by the show thus far seems to support Spike’s claim. Dr. Aaron De Groft, Director of the Muscarelle Museum, noted recent stories in The Virginian Pilot, The Daily Press and World News.

“When it goes out on that sort of wire, it really sort of explodes,” he said.

The show was heavily advertised. There have been ads in many local newspapers, the alumni magazine, and in movie theaters from Tyson’s Corner to Virginia Beach, a total of 400 million media impressions.

“This is new,” De Groft said. “I’ve done this in other places, and we’re going to see how incredibly successful this will be.”

One of the most important elements when planning the show was the layout. The students had to keep in mind lighting, color, painting size and how those aspects would affect the viewer. The students had the gallery completely laid out but then the paintings arrived, and they realized that they were going to have to revamp their original design.

“We changed it, eighty percent of it,” De Groft said. “I think we changed almost everything, except the Monet being in the middle of the one wall.”

The first gallery of the exhibition is a didactic space. Catherine Barth ’12 pointed to several features of the room which were particularly important.

“[There are] long panels where you see … color contrasts, scenes of daily life, and then we show examples of paintings or prints on the walls so that you can actually see what it is that we’re talking about.”

Barth also worked on a music station in the same room that plays music from the time period.

The second gallery, where the Pissarros, Monets and Renoirs hang, is the main focus of the exhibition. The highlight is Monet’s “Houses of Parliament in the Fog,” one of the several studies that the artist painted during his time in London.

Finally, the third room features paintings by famous American Impressionist artists.

“[We wanted to] highlight these five secrets that really set the Impressionists apart from previous forms of art,” Kennis Forte ’13 said. “Impressionism is this huge thing; everyone loves Impressionist work, and it’s important to know why.”

Students were broken up into groups to work on different aspects of the show, including writing and researching the labels accompanying each of the works and designing the educational programming.
“[I] developed lesson plans, specifically for fifth to eighth graders, that kind of dive deeper into these five secrets and then try to apply them to different areas of their curricula,” Chelsea Bracci ’13 said. “We had an entire lesson about optics and colors and color theory, and how does that then tie in with marketing and images we see today, to really try to show them that impressionism didn’t stop with the Impressionists per se, but then actually went [further into] their fast food signs… just [to] try to make them aware of things like that.”

The education was not just geared toward schoolchildren. Students in the class used their research to develop guided tours of the exhibit.

“What we were learning in the class was just Impressionism in general, and then we were taking that knowledge, doing further research, and developing our own statements about [the pieces],” Bernotas said. “We developed a six-page tour script.”

This show provided learning experiences for students beyond educating visitors about the significance of the works of art and the layout of the gallery. Members of the marketing team also gained valuable hands-on experience.

“We’re getting out into the world, we’re doing all this press stuff, we had a class blog,” Monika Bernotas ’12 said. “We’re trying to connect the community with [the Muscarelle] and just help them learn more about Impressionism.”

Not only did the class provide information for the actual museum, but they also helped to create an online experience.

“If [people] searched for certain pictures then they would be taken to the Muscarelle website and then learn about the exhibition that way,” Alex Purcell ’12 said.

The extensive students’s research applies to the website as well.

“[I’m] working on a new project about seeing what actually drew people to the exhibition,” Purcell said. “Was it the website? Was it advertisements, signs or word of mouth?”

The exhibition will stay at the Muscarelle until Jan. 22, giving students the opportunity to continue sharing all the work they have done in the class.

“This show has been such an important part of our semester,” Kristen Scully ’14 said. “It’s a huge experience for us as students. Part of the fun of the show is being able to share it with all our friends… After class, [if] I see a friend, I tell them exactly what happened that day. It’s been such a unique, exciting and wonderful experience.”

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