The impressionists have been congealed by their fame—stuck together, flattened out, worshipped or disdained wholesale. It's high time the general public starts doing what art historians have been for years: differentiating between them and considering them in a longer history.
One is tempted, walking through the Seattle Art Museum galleries of Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past, to believe that the curators (Ann Dumas and Timothy Standring) secretly wanted to put the impressionists in their place. (This is a highly unlikely theory.) These artists have been cast as the perpetual teenagers of art, the self-taught upstarts. Monet, between daubs, sniffed that he ignored older art. Inspiring Impressionism calls his bluff: It sets the impressionists next to their forebears, especially 17th-century Spanish and Dutch painters and 18th-century French painters.
What happens is that, basically, the elders show the kids how it's done. Direct pairings of paintings deliver the worst blows to Claude and company.
Take a Monet still-life with flowers next to French baroque painter Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer's Vase of Flowers on a Marble Table. Monnoyer gives us a feathery white lily too long in the vase: brown, sagging, slimy. Monet gives us the roundest possible dahlia variant, in bright colors and overly lit: air-headed pom-poms. (Bright colors were new tools for the impressionists thanks to new paints developed by modern chemistry, but in several cases—Renoir is the worst offender—the impressionists behave like the vast majority of today's digital artists, deploying a novelty that's also a dead end.) One-to-one head-ons between Goya and Alfred Sisley, Cassatt and Fragonard, and Renoir and Greuze turn out much the same way, with the impressionists left looking like limited stylists depicting the surfaces of sedated lives.
On the one hand, holding the impressionists to these particular comparisons is completely unfair. Monet has made some great paintings—there's a very nice, moody, blue-purple water-lilies canvas in the contemplative final room of the show, which also contains a sly Renoir seascape whose real subject is color itself.
On the other hand, some artists are better than others, and a show that truly sifts art is stronger for it. Manet and Cézanne stand up best against challenges from historic forebears like Velázquez, Titian, El Greco, and Hals. What endures from Cézanne is his unkillable, shaky anxiety; for Manet it is his ability to be equally impassioned and debonair in every stroke. (One early, surrealistic landscape by Manet could easily be mistaken for a recent Neo Rauch painting.)
Is it worth the $20 that SAM shamefully asks you to pay? On that front there's good news and bad. The bad news is that you're going to have to part with your $20.