Cedar Rapids Museum of Art celebrates 125 years with exhibition mirroring its 19th century roots

“The Laundress Ironing (La Blanchisseuse Repassant),” an oil on canvas, was painted about 1882-1886 by French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917). It is among more than 75 works in “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens.” The touring exhibition is on display through April 26 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The Degas painting is owned by the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa. (Reading Public Museum)

CEDAR RAPIDS — While a group of civic leaders were blazing a trail on the Cedar Rapids art scene at the end of the 19th century, a group of French mavericks were blazing a trail that would jump across the Atlantic Ocean in broad strokes.

So it’s only natural that the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art should launch its yearlong 125th anniversary celebration with an exhibition mirroring its roots.

“Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens” opened Feb. 1 and will be on view through April 26. The touring collection features more than 75 pieces of French and American Impressionist art from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa. Works by French superstars Degas, Renoir and Pissarro will hang alongside pieces by American superstars Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. They fill five first-floor galleries in a museum whose physical presence bridges past and present.

125 years in the making: What began as an art club is now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Museum history

Inspired by art on view during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Cedar Rapids community leaders formed a local Art Club in 1895. Ten years later, they were offered gallery space on the second floor of the city’s new Carnegie library. With that move the club incorporated as the Cedar Rapids Art Association. It stayed in that building at 410 Third Ave. SE until the 1960s, when the association acquired and renovated the four-story Torch Press Building a few blocks away.

When the public library vacated the Carnegie building in the mid-1980s, art moved back into that historic space. The museum raised $10 million to renovate the structure and expanded the footprint by building an adjacent two-story wing offering 16 galleries and an additional 42,000 square feet.

The museum now houses 7,800 pieces of art not only from its own collection, but also works owned by the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Zerzanek Collection of children’s book illustrations and art.


“We really wanted to find a blockbuster for 2020,” Executive Sean Ulmer said when announcing the touring Reading exhibition in 2018. “We really wanted to celebrate our anniversary, and we looked for a couple of years at exhibitions that were in formation. When we found this particular exhibition on Impressionism, it ticked all the boxes.

“It was perfect, given our history and when we were founded. It made a lot of sense in the fact that both (Marvin) Cone and (Grant) Wood earlier in their careers were Impressionists, and the fact that it was both American and French — all of those things were very important to us.”

It’s one of the more expensive exhibits for the museum, with a $50,000 borrowing fee. Ulmer noted the 2005 Grant Wood exhibition, which featured “American Gothic” on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, cost $500,000 — including insurance for one of the world’s most instantly recognizable paintings. In comparison, he called the Impressionism exhibit’s borrowing fee “relatively reasonable.”

Exhibition details

Visitors will be able to see the influences and differences in the painting styles, subjects and colors between the French and American artists.

The Americans gravitated toward more winter landscapes and a darker, bolder palette, Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator noted.

“I find this show very shimmery without being super brightly colored. There’s a lot of just silvery sheen and there’s a lot of blue and a lot of gray ... without the riotous bright colors that I associate with Renoir,” she said.

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Emerging in the 1860s, Impressionism gave artists a kind of freedom they hadn’t experienced in the more strict, literal works from the French Academy of Art, established in the 17th century to train artists and oversee French artistic standards.

“French Impressionism really opens the way for artists to have much more freedom in how they portrayed things,” Kunau said. “These artists were the ones who broke away from the French Academy — from that really strict, smooth (technique). You would never see a brush stroke in a work from the French Academy. It would just be smooth, very fine and tight painting.

“The French Impressionist artisans ... made room for people to work quickly and be brushy and to not feel like they have to minutely capture absolutely everything about a scene.”

Monet, Renoir and a few contemporaries wanted to break out of studio portraiture and paint outdoors, drawing inspiration from the effects of changing sunlight and seasons on the landscapes, such as evoking more of sense of open water in the afternoon, rather than a literal reflection.

“It’s just capturing a fleeting moment when the sun looks like this,” she said, pointing to one of the paintings in the exhibition. “It’s giving those shadows across the snow and here it’s capturing it really quickly.

“It’s definitely no coincidence that Impressionism also arises when photography was becoming more and more of an important medium, so painters didn’t need to capture the exact moment in the way that photography could. It freed them up to capture how (a scene) feels, as opposed to exactly how it looks. It gave them a lot more freedom to loosen up and try different styles, and do fun things like that.”

Kunau has grouped the pieces in a way to show the evolution and styles between the French and American artists — how the French artists were moving on “to the next best thing” at the turn of the century, while American artists embraced Impressionism for another 20 years, reaching into the period where Wood and Cone were painting in France.


“It took a couple of decades for impressionism to fully cross the ocean,” Kunau said. “Grant Wood was painting Impressionist works in the 1920s because that was the style. And even then, when he went to Paris, Paris had already moved on from Impressionism. ...

“Paris was the capital of the art world really until World War II,” she noted, “When Americans discovered Impressionism — when William Merritt Chase made it really popular in America — America was a little bit lagging behind (the) French. And so when Impressionism was the French way to paint, that became what everyone was taught. You were taught to paint in that manner because that was the fancy French way to do it.

“And honestly, America had been looking to Europe for inspiration for how to be fancy since America was America in the 18th century, so this was a continuation of that,” she said. “It wasn’t until after World War II when the center of the art world moved to New York that America really found its own independent artistic voice.”

If you go

• What: “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens”

• Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: Feb. 1 to April 26

• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

• Admission: $8 adults, $7 ages 62 and older and college students, $4 ages 6 to 18, free ages 5 and under and museum members

Related events

• Art Bites: “Across the Atlantic,” 12:15 p.m. Feb. 5, free; Associate Curator Kate Kunau will walk through the galleries, explaining the layout, narrative and highlights of the show


• Family Fun Day: “Bonjour, Artistes!” 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 8; free admission; scavenger hunts, make-and-take art projects for all ages

Lecture: “French and American Impressionism,” by Kate Kunau, 1 to 2 p.m. Feb. 9; free

Exhibit tours: “Across the Atlantic,” 1 p.m. Feb. 11; free with paid admission; also 3 p.m. Feb. 26, 4 p.m. March 12, 2 p.m. March 27, 7 p.m. April 9, 1 p.m. April 24

Tour: Grant Wood, Impressionist: 7 p.m. Feb. 13; free with paid admission; in honor of Grant Wood’s birthday, this docent-led tour will note his Impressionistic works on view

Lecture: “Across the Atlantic: Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto”: Tim Hankewich and Kate Kunau, 1 to 2 p.m. Feb. 23; free; hear various aspects surrounding Igor Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, looking at art, patronage and music; Orchestra Iowa will perform this concerto March 6-7 with Ballet Quad Cities

Class: Discovering Oil Pastels: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27; materials supplied, $15; register by Feb. 24 by contacting Erin Thomas, (319) 366-7503 or

More events:

Comments: (319) 368-8508;

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