Feature

Exhibit of the week: Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

While the Musée d’Orsay undergoes renovations, two exhibitions assembled from its collection of impressionist paintings will travel the world. The De Young Museum in San Francisco is the only musuem that will host both.

De Young Museum, San Francisco
Through Sept. 6

While its historic building undergoes renovations, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay “is taking its act on the road,” said Charlie McCullom in the San Jose Mercury News. The world’s most important collection of impressionist and other 19th-century French art “has packed up its Monets and Manets, its Cézannes and Renoirs, even that painting of Whistler’s mom.” Two exhibitions assembled from the collection will be crisscrossing the globe this year, “but only one museum in the world will host both”: San Francisco’s de Young Museum. The first show to visit the de Young attempts to trace the creation of the impressionist movement by showing some of its finest exemplars alongside lesser-known contemporaries.

“Rather than presenting a mere hit parade,” the show illuminates what was truly so different about the impressionists, said Janos Gereben in the San Francisco Examiner. The then-dominant art style, academic painting, rendered historical and mythological scenes in a polished but often lifeless style. The impressionists introduced an appreciation of “visible brush strokes, an emphasis on changing light and movement, and a focus on everyday people.” Paintings such as Édouard Manet’s The Fifer and Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor-Scrapers challenged viewers by showing them humble subjects from the real world. Likewise, artists such as Paul Cézanne confronted them with a style that seemed almost primitive, said Jennifer Modenessi in the Contra Costa, Calif., Times. The indistinct forms and rough surfaces of his Gulf of Marseille Seen From L’Estaque “must have looked very strange to people accustomed to slick, highly finished paintings.” It can be hard for today’s museumgoers, long accustomed to the impressionists’ innovations, to “look at these famous works of art with fresh eyes.”

It may be even harder for us to give the impressionists’ predecessors a fair shake, said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. Take Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus—an airy mythological scene that has all the “calculated false feeling, historical irrelevance,” and other qualities that the impressionists hated. Even if you agree with their judgments, however, you “must admire the technical dexterity” of such a work. This exhibition defines the fault lines between traditionalists and innovators, but also points out the complex connections among, say, mythologists like Bouguereau, symbolists like Gustave Courbet, and impressionists like Pierre Auguste Renoir. “Forget nomenclature for a while, and look hard at the rich range and variety of physical detail in the paintings.” Unless you travel to Paris, you’ll never see their likes again.

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