Where do ideas for exhibit components come from? This is a question I get asked all the time. Here at PEM, the answer is “from the content and the team.” So, to celebrate the opening of Impressionists on the Water, here’s a photographic record of the development of one idea: The studio boat.
A central theme of our new exhibition is the intimate relationship between the artists and the waterways of France. Their experience with watercraft had a profound impact on their art. Some like Monet and Daubigny used small boats as floating studios to get out onto the water. Others, like Caillebotte, were experienced sailors. Of all the major pre-Impressionist and Impressionist artists, only Cezanne and Degas lacked boating connections. Roughly 85 percent of the artists had nautical roots. Impressionists on the Water brings together a unique collection of artworks that help explore an aspect of Impressionism that may be unfamiliar to many people.
Since a major theme of the exhibition had to do with direct experience of being on the water, we thought it would great if we could give visitors a waterline view. The exhibition has several artworks depicting studio boats. Could we make our own and figure out a way to capture some of that feeling of being an artist creating on the water? A large-scale projection of a waterway viewed from inside a constructed boat could be done. And if we captured a time-lapse film of an artist actually painting in an Impressionist style and displayed it on a canvas in the boat, you could see the natural world, and how it was translated onto a canvas!
Below are my first embarrassingly crude sketches of what a studio boat might look like based on Manet’s paintings of Monet’s studio boat.
After some initial discussions about floor space and budget, I sketched a couple of ideas of a boat with a canvas cabin you would walk into from the stern and by looking out through the front you could see the boat’s bow and a canvas on an easel. In front of the boat, a large curved screen would display high-definition video of different waterway scenes.
Making it Real
As we researched studio boats more, and thought more concretely about trying to make the concept work, we quickly realized that my Monet-based idea would require too much space. Instead we turned our idea around 180 degrees and focused on Daubigny’s sketches of his studio boat where the view is constrained within a neat rectangular frame. As an added bonus, Daubigny actually sketched the interior of his own boat, so we could reproduce what was in there in addition to the painting supplies; pots and pans, coffee grinder, vegetables and all the things you’d need to live on the water.
Finding the footage
The moving images on the big screen would be the thing that would make or break the experience. We spent quite a while researching existing video of French waterways without finding anything we could use. We needed the view to be filmed from a fairly low vantage point, and wanted scenes that would appeal to a painter. In the end, after a brief flirtation with the idea of going to France, renting a boat and getting what we wanted, we decided to explore more local options. Chip Van Dyke, our media production manager, felt confident that he could find us enough interesting views along area waterways to satisfy the team. So over the next month or two, he spent weekend mornings and evenings hanging out of canoes and kayaks looking for scenic vistas. Read about that experience in this post.
Below are some of Chip’s test shots from various waterways.
As the hunt for video footage was underway, we started another hunt. Finding an artist able to paint in the manner we wanted, in the timeframe we wanted, and with a camera hanging over his or her shoulder, was a tall order. Luckily, PEM has many friends in the arts. In the end, we commissioned Nantucket-based artist Lisa Sawlit to create the three small oil paintings that would appear on the canvas. Lisa was able to grasp what we were trying to do, and more importantly, saw the whole project as an interesting experiment that would be kind of fun. A sense of humor is a great aid when you’re trying new things, and Lisa was a real trouper.