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Art Preview: “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, from Bonnard to Vuillard” at the Phillips Collection

A new exhibition reveals how early photography proved irresistible to artists.

Left: Maurice Denis, Marthe offering Bernadette a bunch of grapes, Le Pouldu, September 15, 1890. Right: Maurice Denis, Noële and Her Mother, 1896. Photographs © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

“You press the button, we do the rest” said the slogan on George Eastman’s first Kodak camera, which enthralled thousands of would-be photographers when it debuted in 1888. No longer was photography relegated to professionals with expensive, cumbersome equipment—Eastman’s handheld made easy work of the process, creating shutterbugs of amateurs and artists alike. Many post-impressionist painters and printmakers found themselves swept up in the Kodak craze, taking thousands of snapshots of their travels, families, models, and muses. Some of their photographs were exchanged with fellow artists; some were used as studies for future pieces. And some, perhaps, were never meant to be seen.

Two hundred of these prints are on display in the Phillips Collection’s latest installation, “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, from Bonnard to Vuillard,” which makes its stateside debut tomorrow after an initial showing in Amsterdam. Co-organized by the Van Gogh Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the exhibition explores the work of seven artists known to be transfixed by this new medium. A few may be familiar: Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, and Maurice Denis were all members of a post-impressionist school known as the Nabis, a group of avant-garde painters influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin. The remaining three—Henri Rivière, George Hendrik Breitner, and Henri Evenepoel—are lesser known, but were equally as enamored with Eastman’s technology. Curators combed through Parisian attics and peeked into dusty shoeboxes in the Hague to uncover these artists’ photos, many of which have never been shown before.

The intimate, residential scale of the Collection’s third-floor gallery feels right for this exhibition. The snapshots, which hang alongside 70 of the artists’ paintings and drawings, capture private, intensely personal moments. Denis snapped picture after picture of his wife and newborn son. Vuillard filled his viewfinder with the women in his life—his mother, his sister, his muses. Evenepoel fixated on his mistress/cousin, Louise. At first glance, its seems as though these artists used their Instamatics the same way that we use Instagram. But as you move through the gallery, subtle parallels between photograph and painting begin to emerge. “A camera really does lie, and these artists understood that,” says co-curator Ellen W. Lee. “They understood the aesthetic potential of the camera.” Through the exhibition’s juxtaposition of canvas and Kodak, you can see that their forays into photography enabled the artists to play with unconventional perspectives, abrupt cropping, and camera-created light effects in their painting and printmaking.

This is the first show—ever—to investigate this photography as a medium rather than ephemera. But on the heels of Eastman Kodak’s bankruptcy announcement on January 19, an air of nostalgia still imbues the space. When seeing these stunning cyanotypes and stark gelatin prints—and perhaps especially when peeking at the four early Kodak cameras on display in a side gallery—one can’t help but feel a bit wistful for the pre-digital days of photography. “I savor my photographs with the slightly sad joy of reflecting that all this good time is past,” said Evenepoel, according to a quotation inscribed on a gallery wall.

A slightly sad joy, indeed.

“Snapshot: Painters and Photography, from Bonnard to Vuillard” is on view at the Phillips Collection until May 6. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students. Visit the website for information on special events associated with the exhibition.