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The Birth of Impressionism

From Musee D’Orsay to de Young

You’ve seen them on posters and greeting cards everywhere — Degas’ ballerinas, Monet’s landscapes, Cezanne’s still lifes. Now, for once, you don’t have to travel all the way to Paris to see the genuine article. A selection of the City of Light’s Impressionist heritage is currently at the de Young Museum for the Birth of Impressionism exhibition.

A movement famous for capturing light, change, and movement — particularly in the outdoors — Impressionism loses some of its vibrance and vitality, and subtlety in prints. To see the works in the flesh is to finally realize what the endeavor was all about. The de Young has done a wonderful job of displaying these works, and the transition from one style to another, allowing viewers to truly see for themselves why these are such sublime works of art.

In 19th century Paris, the only art that was any art at all was displayed in the yearly salons, displaying masterfully realistic portraits of grand subject matter — history, mythology, important personages, etc. They were elevating and eternal, bringing prestige and clientele to their creators merely by being chosen for the salon.

Rejected by the salon were works on more contemporary themes, works of more expressive colors and visible brushstrokes that chose to represent reality in a slightly different manner. By 1874, many of the creators of these works, tired of being passed over due to their style rather than their talent, chose to stage their own exhibition.

The first eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, showcased 30 exhibitors including Eduoard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pisarro, Pierre-August Renoir, Paul Cezanne, and Berthe Morisot.

The de Young does an outstanding job of presenting this short but highly influential period of art history in several ways. At the outset, one is made aware of the prevailing artistic style of the time — the first part of the exhibition consists of works that were salon successes, exemplary of the prevailing academic style.

Adolphe-William Bougereau’s enormous Birth of Venus and Jules Joseph LeFebvre’s Truth are both prime examples of the smooth brushstrokes, mythological subject matter, and expert realism typically seen in these works. These and the others representing the salons of Paris are truly masterworks, awe-inspiring in their size and masterful technique. They serve as an obvious contrast to the works that follow, giving viewers a concrete sense of how the Impressionists diverged from earlier styles.

Another treat of the exhibition is the fact that among the Manets, Monets, Renoirs, and Courbets are works by Bazille, Boudin, Puvi de Chavannes, Regnault, Volon, and other lesser known, but no less important, artists of the period. Even among the famous names are works that are rarely seen — presenting a wonderful opportunity to really get a sense of the depth and breadth of the work of the period.

But by far the most exhilarating experience is seeing these works in person. Manet’s Moonlight Over the Port of Boulogne, already a captivating image of tall-masted boats rocking gently in the moonlight, takes on a wondrous luminescence that can never come across in a photograph. The light of the moon glows on the canvas, bathing the surface of the sea in a bewitching radiance.

The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte’s simple painting of laborers at work, also attains a freshness and grace when seen in person that can only be partially conveyed in reproductions. It is not just the beautiful geometry of the paneled wall meeting a receding floor, or the graceful forms of the men diligently hand scraping the wooden floorboards. It is the light coming in through the window in the upper left corner, its reflection gleaming off of the now only partially varnished wood and the taut muscles of the men’s backs and arms. An ordinary moment is thus elevated to the extraordinary and the sublime.

It is in being able to see the play of light, the texture, the brushstrokes, the true vibrancy of the colors, that makes this exhibition a rare opportunity.

de Young Museum
May 22 through September 6, 2010
Tickets: $20-$25