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Impressionist Paris: City of Light

A Dazzling Display

While the De Young’s Birth of Impressionism exhibition touts almost 100 French Academic and Impressionist works from the world-renowned Musee D’Orsay, the companion exhibition at the Legion of Honor, Impressionist Paris: City of Light, lends context to these works and expands upon the greater art world of Paris in the late 19th century in a meaningful and superb way.

Meant to complement rather than compete, Impressionist Paris gives viewers an extraordinary glimpse into what was happening city-wide — and worldwide — at the time that the great works of Bougereau, Monet, and Degas were created.

Drawing some 180 works from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s own collections, this exhibition displays not only paintings by masters such as Pierre Bonnard, Georges Seurat, and Edgar Degas, but also prints, drawings, photographs, and advertisement posters created by the likes of Honore Daumier, James Tissot, Marie Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Mucha.

Paris of the 19th century was an active, bustling city, one that was also undergoing the massive construction that led to its now distinct wide boulevards and many of its most well-known architectural structures. Capturing this were numerous photographers and engravers, the result of which are many of those evocative and haunting images of Paris with which we are so familiar.

Charles Marville’s “Street Lamp, 8 Place de l’Opera” is one such image, depicting a street lamp (the abundance of which gave Paris its name the “City of Light”) standing lonely and erect in front of a tobacconist’s shop, an intricate, wrought-iron balcony overhanging the sidewalk from which the lamp stands sentinel.

The lithographs of Henri Riviere, too, depict the many aspects of this growing metropolis, his “The Tower Under Construction, as Seen from the Trocadero” reveals a rare view of the Eiffel Tower covered in a softly falling snow. It was at the World’s Fair of 1889, in fact, that the newly-built Eiffel Tower was showcased — a structure that quickly became Paris’s most famous monument, and the subject of numerous works of art, of which Riviere’s lithograph is only one in this exhibition.

Georges Seurat’s “Eiffel Tower,” for instance, captures the graceful edifice just a year after it was erected, a fabulous smattering of pastel pointillism reflecting the ever-changing quality of the light as it bounces off of the huge structure. These mere tiny multi-colored dots of paint, carefully applied, mass together on the canvas to form a glowing image of this world-famous work of architecture.

Barely twenty years later, Peter Debreuil once again fixes the Eiffel Tower forever in our imaginations in his photograph, “Elephantaisie.” The sepia tones beautifully set off the ghostly outline of the Eiffel Tower in the background, as an exotic and graceful elephant rears its head in the foreground, perhaps trumpeting the legendary construction. These are both excellent examples of how the architecture of the city itself had an enormous impact on artists of the time.

A real treat here, though, is the collection of works on paper. We have often seen the paintings of Seurat, Monet, Cassatt, Pissarro, and Gauguin, but this exhibition gives viewers insight into another side of their works: black and white drawings. And since color was such an important aspect of these artists’ works, it is fascinating to see what emerges when all color is drained.

Seurat’s drawings still maintain a somewhat pointillistic quality. His study for “La parad de cirque” depicts that same ghostly lack of definition yet it forms unmistakable figures out of the discrete points of light and dark.

Degas’ “Final Touches in the Toilette,” on the other hand, seems uncharacteristically bold, with broad brushstrokes in black ink, the figure barely discernable from the roughly textured background. These works in black and white reveal not only the breadth of talent of these artists, but also a side of their work that dwells more deeply in texture, form, and line due to the absence of color.

While the de Young’s Birth of Impressionism[/b[ offers a concentrated close-up of the emergence of one of the most important art movements in the West, Impressionist Paris gives visitors the broad telescopic view of the context in which Impressionism arose. It has a great breadth of style, subject matter, and media, all of which enlarge one’s understanding of the time and place in which Impressionism arose, and more importantly, of the artists themselves.