Artistic reputations are very important to some countries. In the case of France and Italy, a large proportion of their GNP is dependent on their perceived image as centers of aesthetic excellence — something that pays dividends in terms of income from tourism and demand for designer goods. This is why both countries make major efforts to protect and project their artistic legacies overseas.

This is especially apparent with “The Macchiaioli: Italian Masters of Realism” at Tokyo’s Teien Museum of Art; an exhibition, strongly supported by the Italian government, that attempts ever so nicely to chip away at the dominance of the Impressionists in the hearts of the Japanese public.

Like the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli were a group of artists who sought to break with a past dominated by academic art by adopting new methods, subjects and styles. These included plein air (open air) painting, themes taken from nature and the lives of the common people, and a rapid-dabbing style of painting that created patches of color, which gave the movement its name: “macchia” is Italian for “patches.”

With its origins in the late 1850s, the movement also predates Impressionism by about a decade, allowing the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs to refer to the Macchiaioli in the exhibition catalogue as “these older cousins of the Impressionists.”

But when you attack a sacred cow such as the Impressionists, it is advisable to tread carefully. Accordingly, the show is well curated with the evidence of primacy carefully marshaled, and, just to set the right tone of impartiality, there is even a nod toward the French Barbizon painters, such as Corot and Millet, who pioneered open-air painting in the 1840s.

“Yes, the Macchiaioli were influenced by Barbizon in painting outdoors,” museum curator Yukihide Muta agrees. “But the characteristic of the movement was the combination of this with the technique of macchia and chiaroscuro, which have their roots in the painting of Italy. It was this that was later borrowed by Impressionism.”

There is even a ready explanation for why Impressionism took what might be regarded as Macchiaioli’s rightful place in the pantheon of art.

“During the second half of the 18th century, there was a strong art market in Paris,” Muta points out. “But in Italy, because of the political confusion caused by the attempts at national unification, there wasn’t, so Macchiaioli were at a disadvantage.”

While the exhibition’s thesis is intriguing and may even be welcome for those of us bored with the unchallenged dominance of the Impressionist narrative in the history of 19th-century art, the future prospects for Macchiaioli in the affections of the public ultimately hinge on the quality and distinctiveness of the art and the degree to which the movement’s story can compete with Impressionism’s sweeping tale.

A lthough the quality of Macchiaioli art is undoubtedly good, the differences between the movement and its immediate predecessors may not appear that obvious to modern viewers. Paintings such as Cristiano Banti’s “Peasant Women in Conversation” (1861) and Raffaello Sernesi’s “Urchins (The Fig Thieves)” (c. 1861) do have a freshness, naturalness and feeling for light that earlier 19th-century academic paintings tended to lack. But, in the long history of Western art, peasants and urchins are hardly novel subject matter; while the techniques used — the juxtaposition of bright light and dark shadow in the former, and the quick, dabs of paint used to capture a scene in the latter — can be found in the hands of such past masters as Caravaggio and Titian.

While both the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists were prepared to break with immediate tradition, what distinguishes the Impressionists from their “older cousins” was their readiness to keep pushing the envelope and take risks. From a starting point slightly leftfield of academic art, the dynamic narrative of Impressionism leads to such unprecedented experiments as the pointillism of Georges Seurat and Claude Monet’s exploration of color.

Compared to this, the Macchiaioli were conservative, lacking confidence in their initial vision. After their first experiments, they tended to backtrack, remaining anchored to a revitalized realism that was not that far from the academic realism it had challenged. The result is plenty of good, solid paintings, such as Niccolo Cannicci’s “Quenching a Thirst” (1877) and Silvestro Lega’s charming “A Mother” (1884). But these are timeless works that have to be accessed on their own through patient viewing, rather than as part of some exciting artistic epic.

The show’s not so secret agenda may be to score a blow for Italian soft power over French, but, given the Japanese public’s slavish devotion to all things Monet and Renoir, I doubt that it will even dent Impressionism’s halo of invincibility.

Nevertheless, this well-organized, enjoyable exhibition helps raise the profile of a number of unfairly neglected painters, while pointing out one of the lesser-known but more picturesque pathways of 19th-century art for those who wish to explore it.

“The Macchiaioli” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs till March 14; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp

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