It is said that just after Monet began his poplar series in 1891 the trees were to be auctioned off as timber. On finding out, Monet and a woodseller bought the trees and spared them until the series was finished. For a member of a movement generally associated with immediacy and freedom, this is perhaps unexpected, yet the pictorial innovations and subjects of the Impressionists came from hard graft as well as flashes of inspiration – slowly building their talents and working out problems.
The dedication and planning needed to paint immediately and expressively en plein air is often transcended in the work itself, as in Alfred Sisley’s rapid, spontaneous La maison rose, 1894. He shared a teacher with Monet, Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, an artist in his own right famous for his rigorous workmanship and devotion to his creative vision. This ethos clearly stayed with Sisley, who, like Monet, became obsessed with exploring the infinite variations of one place – in this picture the town of Moret-sur-Loing, where he had lived since 1880. This attempt at creating an encyclopaedia of the seasons often led him to paint the same view from a range of angles and viewpoints in order to capture the passing of time and the transitory effects of light and weather, immersing himself totally in the landscape to wait for a masterpiece to appear in nature.
Although he rarely painted directly from life, Edgar Degas was no less methodical or rigorous, as indicated by two beautiful works from this collection; Portraits (Mme Ducros), 1857–59, and Portrait d'homme d'après un maître flamand, 1870. In line with academic teaching of the time, Degas preferred to work from sketches, as we can see when comparing Portraits (Mme Ducros) to the oil on canvas Portrait de Mme de Ducros, 1858, in the collection of the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. It is a true connoisseur’s piece, giving an intimate look at Degas’ working methods, underpinned by his classical training at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Similarly, Portrait d'homme d'après un maître flamand is a window on Degas’ patient training. E. Maurer writes that ‘together with Ingres, Delacroix and Cézanne, Degas was one of the most passionate and convinced copyists of his time’, and here the Flemish master in question seems to be Van Dyck: the work appears to be based on his Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest, circa 1620, in the National Gallery, London, but it is not a simple copy. In the National Gallery’s Van Dyck, van der Geest looks forward, directly at us; in Degas’ portrait ‘after a Flemish master’ the eyes look away to the left, not meeting our gaze but distracted, intently following something we cannot see. The copy’s similarities to the original in other respects shows Degas’ respect for the master, but his 1870 version veers from direct imitation into something new and complete in its own right.