’Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay’

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Friday May 28, 2010
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"The Floor-Scrapers" (1875), oil on canvas by Gustave Caillebotte. Photo: Rick Gerharter
"The Floor-Scrapers" (1875), oil on canvas by Gustave Caillebotte. Photo: Rick Gerharter

If you've been looking forward to Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay, the blockbuster exhibition of nearly 100 paintings that opened at the de Young Museum last week, and you're expecting an easily digestible parade of familiar, iconic works of Classical Impressionism, you will be in for something of a surprise. While it does feature paintings by adored masters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Paul Cezanne, as well as their lesser-known but no less accomplished contemporaries, the emphasis of this particular show is on the movement's beginnings, its roots in Neo-classicism and Realism and the Orsay's formidable cache of 19th-century French art.

This is the first of two exhibitions of paintings on loan from the Orsay, a former Paris railway station that was converted into a museum over 20 years ago and is currently undergoing renovations. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces follows in September, making San Francisco the sole venue to host both shows.

Strictly speaking, only roughly two-thirds of the works on view here are by Impressionists. Alas, Manet's "Olympia" and "The Luncheon on the Grass," which scandalized Parisian art circles when first displayed, are not part of the package (the Orsay owns them and never lets them travel), nor is "Bal du Moulin de la Galette," one of Renoir's most enchanting masterpieces. And there are a couple of head-scratchers, like the inclusion of "Arrangement in Gray and Black, no.1" (1871), better known as "Whistler's Mother." A famous painting, strikingly modern for its time, yes, but, its relationship to the development of Impressionism is tenuous at best.

There are close to a dozen canvases by Edouard Manet; one of the first artists to tackle modern subjects, he was the connective tissue between Realism and the avant-garde. Shaped by Velazquez and Goya as well as Japanese woodblocks, and adept at orchestrating mystery and gravity in transfixing works such as the dramatic "Angelina" (1865) and "Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne" (1869), Manet, though influenced by the Impressionists and friends with the artists, refused to exhibit with them, opting to maintain his position with the Salon.

Shut out

Taking an art historical approach, Birth is academic and instructive rather than an outright crowd-pleaser. It's at its most persuasive in illustrating the orthodoxy the Impressionists were reacting against. The exhibit's pivot point is 1874, when the first of eight Impressionist shows was held in response to being shut out of the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, where artists sought acceptance and access to collectors. The introductory galleries present examples of the exalted, heroic imagery drawn from mythology and history, favored by the rigid juries of the Salon. Gustave Dore's "The Enigma" (1871), a chilling fusion of myth, allegory and the burning of Paris evoked in sooty grays, and Henri Levy's "Sarpedon" (1874), an epic retelling of Homer's Iliad, for instance, are examples of thrilling paintings that, despite political subtext, announce to the populace: this art is not for or about you.

The juxtaposition of these formal, monumental works with those by the Impressionists - rapturously beautiful explorations of the interplay of light and nature, the last luminous whispers of sunset, the voluptuous curve of a woman's cheek, sun glancing off snow or the incandescent, stylish gatherings of the bourgeoisie - illuminates why the Academie and many patrons initially found the group, a loose confederation of diverse styles and personalities, such a radical departure. Reportedly, a sign was posted outside one of their first shows, warning pregnant women and children not to attend, lest they find the unfinished paintings with their loose brush strokes and depictions of modern life too unsettling. Why these artists started down this road is not elucidated, but the prospect of liberation, in art as in life, is a seductive proposition.

They found beauty in the everyday, a revolutionary concept at the time. Take the congregation of turkeys hustling en masse towards the red-brick chateau as light plays on beaks and a cluster of white feathers stirring in the tall grass; leave it to Monet to find the untapped loveliness of poultry.

While art promoted by the Salon inspired and uplifted, the Impressionists invited viewers into the most sacred realms: tenderness between mother and child in Berthe Morisot's "The Cradle" (1872), personal grooming in "The Pedicure"(1873) by Degas, and the intimate sanctuary of the boudoir or bath. In "Boy with a Cat" (1868), for example, the young Renoir captures the muscular contours of a slender male nude with alabaster skin, embracing the family pet.

Known as an unobtrusive observer of contemporary life, Degas was fascinated with movement and grace, preoccupations that found expression in paintings like "Race Horses before the Stands" (1866-68), which has the feel of a spontaneous snapshot, and in his depiction of young women who caught his eye in the cabarets and brothels of Paris. He was infatuated with the Ballet, especially dancers in unguarded moments, whether in the rehearsal studio or in the wings of the opera stage as they awaited their entrance. In "The Dancing Lesson" (1873-76), ballet students in tulle skirts and ribbons rest or practice in a vast studio, seemingly unaware they're being watched.

Like Degas, James Tissot was drawn to the immediacy of photography. "The Dreamer" (1876), his bewitching painting of a lush woman sitting in her garden, lost in private reverie, has the unpremeditated quality of a candid photo. It's also an argument for the limits of virtual experience. To fully appreciate it, one has to see the painting, with its lustrous blues and pastels tinted by afternoon shade, in person. Once there, it's difficult to suppress the desire to climb into this entrancing scene and share her serenity in the waning moments of the day.

Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay is at the de Young Museum through Sept. 6. Advance purchase tickets: $20; day of visit tickets: $25. Info and tix: www.deyoungmuseum.org.