Geneva Anderson digs into art

Time after Christmas? The de Young’s Paley Collection show closes on Sunday, December 30, 2012—it’s gorgeous, includes many of Modernism’s masterworks, and is doable in 90 minutes

Paul Gauguin, “The Seed of the Areoi” (1892), Oil on burlap, 36 1/4 x 28 3/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Paul Gauguin, “The Seed of the Areoi” (1892), Oil on burlap, 36 1/4 x 28 3/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

William S. Paley’s story is legendary: the determined son of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who was in the cigar business, Paley built Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from a small radio network into one of the foremost radio and television network operations in the United States.  He married two legendary American beauties—Dorothy Hart Hearst and style icon Barbara ”Babe” Cushing Mortimer and he enthusiastically built one of the 20th century’s greatest private art collections.  It was his first wife Dorothy and her friends, like Averell Harriman, who in the early 1930’s, first introduced him to European Impressionist and post-Impressionist artworks and he was smitten.  Soon, he was avidly courting Matisse and buying the best artworks of pioneering modern masters Cézanne, Gaugin and Picasso.  Upon his death in 1990, Paley’s legendary collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures went to the William S. Paley Foundation which transferred it to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), where it went on display in 1992.  Highlights of that collection are on display through Sunday, December 30, 2012, at the de Young Museum, the exclusive West Coast venue for The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism which opened September 15, 2012.   

The exhibition of over 60 artworks from Paley’s remarkable collection is the perfect post-Christmas excursion.  If you saw the phenomenal “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at SFMOMA (2011) and liked it, you’ll appreciate this collection too, which also reads like the tops hits of Modernism.  Unlike the Steins who were expats living in bohemian Paris and collecting works directly from avant-garde painters like Matisse and Picasso, Paley’s early collecting was a function of his European travels and he often paid top dollar for works that caught his fancy.  But the tastes of these powerful collectors more than overlapped—Paley actually purchased several paintings that were originally owned by the Steins.  If you think you’re experiencing déjà vu while walking thorugh this show, you may well be.  A few of the Picasso’s were at SFMOMA in 2011 for “The Steins Collect.”   

The exhibition hosted by the de Young includes major works of Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, with significant works by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Roualt, and Andre Derain.  Not to be missed masterpieces include Gauguin’s “The Seed of the Areoi” (1892) from the artist’s first visit to Tahiti (first gallery); Degas’ large-scale pastel and charcoal “Two Dancers” (1905) (second gallery); Picasso’s celebrated monumental painting, “Boy Leading a Horse” (1905-1906) (next to last gallery), Derain’s vibrant Fauve painting “Bridge over the Riou” (1906) (final gallery), and Matisse’s “Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1925-26) (next to last gallery).   

Paul Gauguin, “Washerwomen” (1888), Oil on burlap, 29 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Paul Gauguin, “Washerwomen” (1888), Oil on burlap, 29 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

As you enter the Herbst Exhibition galleries, you are hit by the color in these artworks and the tremendous power of color to convey emotional energy.  Gauguin’s large and vibrant “The Seed of the Areoi,” painted during the artist’s first trip to Tahiti in the 1890’s opens the exhibition.   The immensely popular painting retells a Polynesian version of a universal story of creation and Gauguin’s mistress is the model for the queen of the Areoi clan.  Masterful is the only word for its color, from the complementary purple against yellow in its background to the neighboring shades of brown, yellow and red in its foreground.  While Gauguin claimed he found this palette in the natural Tahitian landscape and in villages, scholars point out that no such colors co-existed naturally there at the time.  While pleasing to our modern eyes, his palette would have also been quite shocking to his turn-of-the-century European audience.   

Equally enchanting is a smaller Gauguin gem, “Washerwomen,” which he painted during his two-month stay with Vincent van Gogh at Arles in 1888.  Four women are shown bent over on their knees on a riverbank, lost in the timeless rhythm of scrubbing.  With postures evoking those adopted by figures kneeling in prayer, Gauguin superimposed a symbolic meaning on the tranquil scene that links these women to religious ritual practice and to the larger cycle of life. 

Henri Matisse, “Odalisque with a Tambourine,” Nice, place Charles-Félix, winter 1925–1926, Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 21 7/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Henri Matisse, “Odalisque with a Tambourine,” Nice, place Charles-Félix, winter 1925–1926,
Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 21 7/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

The six Matisses in the exhibition attest to his stature as the legendary colorist and master of red.  From his 1903 “The Musketeer,” which is an early expression of his understanding of how color can be used to block spatial relationships to his bold “Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1924-5), “Woman with a Veil (1927) and “Seated Woman with a vase of Amaryllis (1941), we see his imaginative pairings of natural forms of flowers, fruit, women juxtaposed against the simple geometry of inanimate objects such  tables, walls, floor tiles to create motifs bursting with energy and sensuality and color.  The placement of these spectacular Matisses alongside eight of Picasso’s paintings and drawings acknowledges the great rivalry between the two artists who engaged in a kind of mental chess game all of their adult lives.  Picasso, the younger of the two, was always trying to get Matisse to notice him while Matisse was no doubt jealous of Picasso’s flamboyance and success.  Paley appreciated the genius of both.

Pablo Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” (1905-6) has been given its own wall in one of the later exhibition galleries.  The painting was originally owned by Gertrude Stein and was at SFMOMA for “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde” (2011).  Paley bought it in the 1930’s while he was on a ski trip in Saint-Martiz, Switzerland, after it was carried into the lobby of the Palace Hotel by the famous Swiss art book publisher Albert Skira, who also served as his dealer of sorts.  The painting has been smuggled out of Nazi Germany by the dealer Justin Thannhauser and given to Skira to sell and he went right to the Paley, who immediately fell for it.  This important work from Picasso’s Rose Period (1904-6) marks a point in Picasso’s career when his work was on the brink of ingenuity and, at the same time, steeped in history.  As William Rubin, MoMA’s former Director Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, explains in the catalogue, the work was pivotal in the context of the artist’s oeuvre and within the spectrum of art history as a whole.  Picasso both draws inspiration from his contemporaries and demonstrates his extensive art historical knowledge, even referencing as far back as Ancient Greek sculpture.  Ruben also suggests that boy in the painting, P’tit Louis, acts as the artist’s surrogate and that the work can be read as Picasso himself leading his loyal steed into the future, into the age of Cubism.  

Other Picasso pieces included in the show are “Nude with Joined Hands” (1906) inspired by Picasso’s trip to the Pyrenees village of Gósol with his muse Fernande and “The Architect’s Table” (1912), his highly abstract Analytical Cubist masterpiece. 

Pablo Picasso, “Boy Leading a Horse” (Paris, 1905–1906), Oil on canvas, 86 7/8 in. x 51 5/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Pablo Picasso, “Boy Leading a Horse” (Paris, 1905–1906), Oil on canvas, 86 7/8 in. x 51 5/8 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

As an avid grower of old European roses and gardener, I was struck by the paintings of flowers in the exhibition.  Édouard Manet’s “Two Roses on a Tablecloth,” is less than 8 inches high but captures what we gardeners live for.  With its creamy impasto of peachy yellow and off white and the softest pink, Manet alludes to the ephemeral beauty and pure delight of the rose in the peak of its bloom.  The placement of the roses on the table away from water which would sustain them mirrors Manet’s own fragility at the time.  His painting was inspired by the numerous bouquets that visitors brought to him in the winter of 1882-83, when he was mortally ill.   

Henri Rousseau’s delightful naïve still-life “Flowers in a Vase” (1901-02) alludes to the vibrancy that flowers can bring to any setting.  While the painting seems freely executed,Rousseau took great care in the arrangement and coloration of the flowers as well as in creating the green that runs through the bouquet’s foliage, the complimentary green wall behind the arrangement and the ornamental spray of green ivy at the bottom of the composition.    

Renoir’s “Strawberries” (circa 1905), featuring freshly-picked bright red strawberries loosely laid out on a creamy linen tablecloth beside a delicately patterned tea cup is poetical.  The appeal of the freshest possible food with no fuss is timeless.     

As for the exhibition’s many sculptures, the small and simply-posed terra cotta nudes of the French Catalan artist Aristide Maillol are exquisite.  Their faces are quite crude, showing no emotion but the compositions in totality convey a myriad of complex feelings.  Maillol took his inspiration from early classical sculptors but imposed his own modern and expressive take on form, creating fluid and rhythmic female portraits.  In contrast to Maillol stands the detailed perfection of Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” a half-dozen small commemorative portraits meant to depict the varied and complex emotions the six burghers of Calais actually underwent as they offered their lives to save their fellow citizens from King Edward III during the Hundred Year’s War.  

Aristide Maillol, “Seated Woman with Chignon,” 1900, Terracotta on black marble base, 6 7/8 x 4 x 5 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Aristide Maillol, “Seated Woman with Chignon,” 1900, Terracotta on black marble base, 6 7/8 x 4 x 5 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Mid-way through the exhibition is a fascinating series of large-scale color photographs that show many of the paintings showcased in Paley’s 20-plus-room apartment at 825 Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he lived with his second wife, socialite “Babe” Paley.  Their brightly colored and patterned apartment occupied a full floor in one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan and was decorated by the renowned Sister Parish and Albert Hadley (or Parish-Hadley), the French firm of Jansen (which assisted with the Kennedy White House), and Billy Baldwin.  Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” was the first thing people saw as they entered the front door and stepped onto the 18th- century parquet floors which perfectly accentuated the natural hues in painting’s lower register.  The foyer was the only room where people remained standing.  In the other rooms, intimacy and comfort were the rule and smaller artworks were gracefully intermingled with furnishings and personal objects.  As William Ruben writes in the catalogue “Paley’s collecting was entirely personal.  He thought of his paintings as the most important elements of a seamless private world…”  (p. ix) 

Catalogue:  The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism (revised 2012, 176 pages, $39.95, on sale for $29.88) lets you get acquainted with the artworks that Paley lived with.  The catalogue was originally published in 1992 to accompany an exhibition celebrating MoMA’s acquisition of his extraordinary personal art collection.   This newly-redesigned edition of the book has been released to accompany the collection’s second tour throughout the United States and Canada, which commences at the de Young.   Authored by William Rubin, MoMA’s former Director Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, and Matthew Armstrong, the catalogue is organized in alphabetical order by artists.  It devotes at least two full pages to each artwork in the collection—a full page photo and at one full page of analysis by Rubin, who worked with Paley as he made his purchases.  

Édouard Manet, “Two Roses on a Tablecloth,” (1882-83), Oil on canvas, 7 5/8 inches x 9 1/3 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

Édouard Manet, “Two Roses on a Tablecloth,” (1882-83), Oil on canvas, 7 5/8 inches x 9 1/3 inches, The William S. Paley Collection, courtesy of MoMA.

The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism was organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (MOMA) with which Paley began a long affiliation in 1937.  Serving as trustee, chairman of the Painting and Sculpture Committee, president of the Museum and chairman of the Board, Paley was chairman emeritus from 1985 until his death in October 1990. 

For other ARThound coverage of the Paley and Nureyev exhibitions, click here.

Details:  The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism closes Sunday, December 30, 2012.  The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Parking:  By entering Golden Gate Park from 8th Avenue (at Fulton Street), you can park for free for 4 hours on the street on John F. Kennedy Drive and have easy access to the museum.  Otherwise, enter on 10th Avenue (at Fulton) and park at the Music Concourse Garage (M-F $4.50/hour and $5/hour on weekends).  Tickets:  $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students with I.D.; $10 youth 6-17; members and children free.  Fee includes access to all museum collections and exhibitions including Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance (October 6, 2012 – February 17, 2013).  More information:   (415) 750-3600 or

Exhibition Venues:  September 15-December 30, 2012—de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco;  May 2- September 8, 2013—Portland Museum of Art in Maine; October 10, 2013-January 5, 2014—the Fine Arts Museum of Quebec;  and  2014—the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Related Lecture: “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism,” Docent Lecture by Rita Dunlay, Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 2:15 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Free to public.  Museum admission is not required.

December 26, 2012 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In its Final Days: “Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism,” Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

Left: Hiroshige, Gion Shrine in the Snow (Gionsha setchu), from the series Famous Places in Kyoto (Kyoto meisho no uchi), ca. 1833–1834. Right: Henri Riviere, La Tour en construction, vue de Trocadero, pl. 3 from the book Les Trente-Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel, 1902. Color lithograph © 2010 ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris

Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor closes this Sunday.  The show consists of roughly 250 prints, drawings, and artists’ books that trace the development of the Japanese print over two centuries (1700–1900) and reveal Japanesque’s profound influence on Western art during the era of Impressionism.  Most of the works are from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts which is the works on paper department of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FMASF).  See this show now, because it’s likely you won’t see these prints together again for at least 20 years according to exhibition curator Karin Breuer.  The long interval between exhibits is necessary to preserve the prints as prolonged exposure to light will cause fading.  The lighting in the show is subdued but more than adequate to view the prints.  Each print in the show is being tracked to monitor how long it is out of its archival box and exposed to light.  The show complements “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, through January 18, 2011. Many of the paintings from the Musée d’Orsay are aesthetically indebted to concepts of Japanese art.

Japanesque unfolds in three sections: Evolution, Essence and Influence.

Evolution: Evolution presents a chronological development of the Japanese print in Edo (presentday Tokyo), beginning with early black-and-white woodcuts and handcolored woodcuts. They are followed by delicate three- and four-color prints by early masters of ukiyo-e such as Suzuki Harunobu and Kitagawa Utamaro that feature the courtesans and beauties of the “floating world.” Landscape prints from the 1830s by Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige are shown as examples of that important Japanese genre.

Essence:  The Essence section features the Japanese aesthetic in print, and particularly highlights those subjects and compositional concepts that Western artists admired and imitated.  Iconic images such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave and Fuji above the Lightning from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1831–1834) are shown here, as well as Hiroshige’s Plum Orchard from his famous series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857).

Influence:  A large group of works by European and American artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras who were influenced by the Japanese print includes prints and drawings by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  The artists collected Japanese prints and often produced their own graphic work that, in composition, color, and imagery borrowed directly from the Japanese aesthetic.  Henri Rivière’s homage to Hokusai Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902) is featured, as well as the work of American artists such as Arthur Wesley Dow and Helen Hyde, who traveled to Japan to enhance their knowledge of the Japanese color woodcut.

Artist Studio featuring the Craft of the Color Woodcut:  Color woodcut techniques developed by the Japanese and adopted by Western artists are featured in a special education gallery within the exhibition. The “artist studio” includes woodblocks, tools, preparatory drawings, and progressive color prints that demonstrate the process of designing, carving, and printing color woodcuts.

Details: The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. For information, visit  or call (415) 750-3600.

Tickets to “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond” at the de Young are good for same-day admission to “Japanesque” at the Legion of Honor.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Week: de Young Museum “Birth of Impressionism,” the first of two unique Musée d’Orsay shows that bring Paris right to Our Doorstep

The Fifer. 1866. Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 38 1/4 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowsk

Every era has its radicals– those who challenge the entrenched status quo, usher in sweeping change, and, finally, are upstaged themselves.  For the past 3 months, the de Young Museum has explored those early independent Impressionist painters who broke the rules of academic painting and shocked the conservative mid-19th century French art scene with a scandalous infusion of light and color.  The early Impressionists set entirely new standards for how artists saw and depicted nature and subsequently, they have influenced generations of artists.   “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” now in its final week, presents a remarkable group of nearly 100 mid to late 19th century paintings, some well-known, others not, that showcase the antecedents of Impressionism.  The works are from Paris, from the Musée d’Orsay, the former Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine that was converted into a museum by architect Gae Aulenti some 25 years ago and is currently being refurbished for its silver anniversary.    

The back story on how they came to the de Young is that Dede Wilsey (FAMSF Board Chair) and John Buchanan (FAMSF Director) were attending the auction for  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’s estate in Paris in February 2009 and over dinner learned from Musée d’Orsay Director, Guy Cogeval, that the museum needed a safe place to stash its Impressionist treasures while the plaster and dust were flying.  The duo politely pounced and Cogeval invited them to select what they wanted of Orsay museum treasures eligible to leave the country.   They choose about 240 works in two days and the details—the thematic split into two shows, transport, financial and insurance issues– fell into place over the coming year.   The De Young is the only museum in the world that will likely ever have two consecutive special exhibitions from the Musée d’Orsay of Impressionist art of this caliber which attests to its glowing stature in the museum world and our good luck.      

This first exhibition, co-curated by FAMSF’s Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, PhD, Curator of European Art, begins with paintings by naturalist artists such as Bougereau and Courbet, the great symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and includes early works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Sisley as well as a selection of Degas’ paintings that depict images of the ballet, the racetrack and life in “la Belle Époque.”  The second show, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” (September 25 – January 18, 2011)  will present 120 of the Musée d’Orsay’s most famous late Impressionist paintings, including those by Monet and Renoir, followed by the more individualistic styles of the early modern masters including Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh, and the Nabi painters Bonnard and Vuillard.  

Those expecting something as straightforward as the museum’s last blockbuster, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” will be challenged in the very best sense of the word.  This is an academic and probing look at the various roots of Impressionism rather than a line-up of immediate wows.  The show is also beautifully presented—exquisitely lit and hung (lower than usual) and actually shows these works to better advantage than the (pre-renovation) Orsay ever did with its whitish walls and harsh lighting environment.   The de Young’s special configurable exhibition walls, have been organized into nine small galleries or salons painted in specially-selected rich dark hues ranging from a Venetian red, to rich taupe to velvety Seminole brown which complements the artworks and adds atmosphere all along the way.    

Conceptually, the show succeeds in illuminating a messy topic—the many factors that contributed to and ran along side of the birth of Impressionism.   Salon painting has been combined with modernity in all aspects—Manet from the 1860’s, the Ecole de Batignolles, the beginnings of Symbolist art, and the influence of modernization. The show also points to the French state’s success in its 19th century collecting practices—several of these masterpieces were acquired directly from the artists at the time.  

Birth of Venus. 1879. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Oil on canvas, 9 ft. 10 1/8 inches x 7 ft. 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

This is not the de Young’s first stab at this topic.  In April-July, 1986, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, the de Young Museum under curator Charles Moffett, brought together about 150 works from collections all over the world and presented them as they were first seen in the Impressionist movement’s original eight shows. That remarkable assemblage of works, “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,” was immensely popular and this current exhibition draws heavily on that scholarship.  

The Salon

The show begins with an exploration of 19th century painting styles emerging from the dictatorial government-sponsored Salon.  The early Impressionist artists all called France home during the mid-19th Century and competed with each other for an exhibition place at the annual Salon, the only juried exhibition of new painting and sculpture in Paris.  Acceptance in this official yearly salon was the gateway to financial success but the Impressionist artists sought to circumvent the Salon and its stifling rules and stage their own shows and sell their own works.   The Salon’s taste ran to “la grande peinture” or “le peinture d’ histories”–elevated historical, religious, or mythological themes derived from the study of ancient and Renaissance art with an underlying moral purpose.   Subcategories include nudes (always in an allegorical context), Orientalism (fueled by artists traveling to exotic outposts) and battle paintings (inspired by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that inspired younger artists to tackle the subject).  With the emergence of photography, these topics began to wane as the public’s interest in realism was peaked. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s famed “The Birth of Venus,” 1879, dominates the entire first gallery.  A textbook example of classical 19th century academic painting, the allegorical piece does not depict Venus’ actual birth from the sea, rather her transport in a shell, (metaphor for the vulva) from the sea to Paphos on Cyprus.  The fleshy Venus, executed in milky hues, is flanked by adoring mythological cherubs and centaurs.  The painting encapsulates what irked the Impressionists most about the painting of the day—false sentiment, mythological content removed from reality and its hallmark “licked finish,” a process codified by the French Academy whereby the surface of painting was smoothed so much that presence of the artist’s hand was no longer visible.   

Galatea. Circa 1880. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Oil on wood, 33 5/8 x 26 3/4 inches, RMN (Musée d'Orsay) /René-Gabriel Ojéda

Notable in the second gallery, “The Salon” is symbolist painter Gustave Moreau’s “Galatea,” circa 1880,  a work with an intoxicating dream quality and a spectacular etched surface treatment making it appear that little jewels have been set into the canvas.  Moreau  shared with the Impressionist artists that followed a highly experimental use of paint, tone, color and a lack of regard for socially accepted themes.  A nude nymph sits languidly in a sensual grotto that is adorned with a profusion of anemones, corals and flora and she is spied upon by a three-eyed monster.  This picture is based on a story from Greek mythology, about the unrequited love of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the Nereid, Galatea who loved the shepherd Acis.  Stéphane Guégan curator, Musee d’Orsay, told me that this oil on panel piece should not really have been lent because of its extreme fragility.  Galatea triumphed at the 1880 French Salon.  The show also includes Moreau’s “Jason,” 1865, another icon of French symbolism that was exhibited at the Salon of 1865 (and harshly criticized) and bought by the French state in 1875. 

As you wander through the 9 galleries, you will see that some of the paintings have a protective “cason,” a glass covering that ensures a temperature and humidity- controlled environment especially important for panel (wood) paintings.  Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada explained that a Musee d’Orsay conservator came especially from Paris and stayed for one week, inspecting, cleaning and repairing works and their fragile frames after their travel to San Francisco.   In some cases, the results were astonishing– Berthe Merisot’s beloved work “The Cradle” was very dark before leaving Paris, so dark that the hair of the baby was not visible.  After its varnish was cleaned, and in the well-lit de Young gallery, the painting’s fine details stand out.  

Another thing you will notice is a profusion of very ornate gilded and carved frames which, to our modern eye, are distracting, particularly so with the works of Cezanne and Monet, where they seem to intrude into the canvas.   According to Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada, these frames reflect the bourgeoisie taste of the day and have been coupled with the paintings for so long that they are considered part of the artwork.   “We all have the idea that the Impressionists were revolutionary but after 10 years or so they were deeply appreciated and the bourgeoisie loved and bought their paintings.  In order to fit into the ornate style of their apartments, the paintings were put in these frames.” 

General Prim. October 8 1868. 1869. Henri Regnault (1843-1871). Oil on canvas. 124 x 102 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

The Impact of War 

The third gallery entitled “The Terrible Year” refers to two dramatic French military defeats in 1870-71 that devastated French moral and affected artists directly, many of whom enlisted and some fled.  At the Salon of 1872, over 30 artists showed works directly related to war.   “Juan Prim,” Henri Regnault’s superb life-size 1869 portrait of General Prim and his gorgeous black steed is a stand-out.   While making a tour in Spain, Regnault observed the general, the hero of the hour, in action, and created the memorable image of the general as a military demagogue amidst the backdrop of his troops.  Although Prim commissioned the portrait, he was not satisfied with it and refused to accept it.  The work had tremendous appeal with the public though and was a great success at the Salon of 1869.  As a prized artist, Regnault was exempt from military duty but he was dedicated and volunteered to serve in one of the last battles of the Franco-Prussian war and was killed at age 27. 


 “French painters and Spanish Style,” the next salon, illuminates how Spanish painters, in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco Jose de Goya, influenced the early Impressionists, especially Édouard Manet, a focal artist in this exhibition.  The following gallery is devoted entirely to Manet and his notable exploits with the Salon which continued until his death.  Even as a young artist, Manet’s innovative style tended to bold strokes and unexpected contrasts and his subject matter was unconventional in that it rejected the Salon’s established hierarchy of genres (history paintings and allegory at the top and still life and landscape at the bottom) and focused on more ordinary but provocative subjects–prostitutes and debauched drinkers.  The Salon would not accept this and slapped him down at every opportunity.    

Manet’s first submission to the Salon in 1859, “The Absinthe Drinker,” despite its fashionable Spanish resonance (the current Empress, Euginie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III was of Spanish origin), was rejected for its traditional full-length portrait configuration devoted to a socially marginalized individual.    His extraordinary works Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-63) and the tantalizing Olympia (1863) (not in the show because they are not allowed to leave France) were also subsequently rejected for their deviation from accepted artistic convention and their scandalous low-life subject matter.   Despite repeated official rejection, Manet sought acceptance from the Salon while clinging to his friend Baudelaire’s advice…to depict a contemporary realism, to be “le peintre de la vie moderne.”    He never exhibited with his Impressionist friends but influenced them heavily.   Early in his career, and ahead of Impressionism, Manet found a way of working that addressed their polemic–the revolt against academic rules and the application of pictorial means to contemporary subject matter.   

Manet’s “The Fifer,” (1866) singled out for the exhibition poster, at first appears as direct as the young boy in uniform staring out at us from his portrait but it exemplifies the eerie complexity of Manet.  The boy’s recognizable stance seems to be derived from a French tarot card.  He is positioned and playing his flute against the backdrop of flat gray void that seems to both make him stand out and to engulf him in silent emptiness.  How can he ever be heard?  Who will hear him?  In this work, as in others, Manet delves deep into the human psyche, to a place of discomfort, evoking a complex confrontation with the hidden.  Whether it’s “The Fifer,” “Woman with Fans” (1873), or “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1882), we project onto their staid silence.     

Bazille’s Studio. 1970. Fredéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas. 38 5/8 x 50 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada’s argues in the exhibition catalogue that Manet, while supportive towards the Impressionist movement, cultivated a unique style that remained distinct from Impressionism.  (“Manet: Between Tradition and Innovation,” pp. 110-114) 

 The Impressionists’ Early Gatherings

After quite a build-up, the final three galleries devote themselves to works that most consider classics of early Impressionism.  The shift is palpable as we visually experience the sharp break with tradition.   The 7th salon, “École de Batignolles” traces how the early artists—Manet, Renoir, Bazille, Scholderer, Fantin-Latour –each radical in their own way, shared a dialogue and friendship while remaining artistically distinct and highly experimental.   “École de Batignolles” was an early name given to the group of artists who were later called the Impressionists.  The phrase itself refers to informal meetings of these artists and intellectuals with Manet at the famed café Guerbois on the rue de Batignolles which ultimately led to the decision in 1867 to set up an exhibition separate from the Salon.  While these famed 8 exhibitions of “new painting” did not begin until 1874, their genesis was in these early stimulating gatherings.   The phrase also refers to a group of interconnected portraits executed by these artists that round out their sense of camaraderie.   Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Homage to Delacroix” (1864), his “A Studio in the Batignolles” (1870) and  Frédéric Bazille’s “Bazille’s Studio” (1870) are three striking but completely different portraits whose theme is the tight bond between these artists.  

Frédéric Bazille’s large painting, Family Reunion,” (1867) stands out with its bold execution.  The subject is Bazille’s family on holiday in the South of France and each of the ten figures is captured portrait-style, looking directly towards the viewer, as if captured by a camera.  This serves to unify the composition but also adds the sensation of an odd stiffness.  The contrast is spectacular– the sun is shining brightly but the group is under the shade of a large tree whose foliage filters and articulates very sophisticated light and shadow effects against the subjects, their clothing and surroundings.

Family Reunion. 1867. Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas, 59 7/8 inches x 7 ft. 6 ½ inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Classic Impressionism  

Standing in the final galleries and beholding the most famous early Impressionist masterpieces is something that has to be experienced in person. The Impressionists’ flickering brushwork was highly effective in capturing a sense of immediacy–the fleeting quality of light and atmosphere.   Several works by Camille Pissaro, the only Impressionist painter to show in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, point to his reverence for nature and his agility in creating lighting effects that capture its seasonal moods.  “Path through the Woods, Summer” (1877) captures light shining through dense forest, illuminating a path, while “Hoarfrost” (1873) captures the stillness of a winter’s day.  

Turkeys. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas. 69 x 68 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

There is nothing simple about the masterwork of Claude Monet, including his deliberate sense of improvisation that suggested rather than described what the eye was taking in.  Standing in front of his huge (6 x 6 ft) “Turkeys,” (1877), we are amused at his vibrant celebration of foul and seduced by its vivid hues.  The head of turkey asserting itself in the lower left of the canvas is marvelous—a spiraling ribbon of pure color.  Monet, like other Impressionists, laid light and dark colors right along beside one another, producing bold contrasts that created palpable visual tension in their artworks.   The brushstrokes enforced this– the white feathers of the turkey’s companions are rendered in long and thick impasto strokes, creating a rough irregular surface texture that mimics actual feathers and captures and reflects light.   This was no accident– the Impressionists were keenly aware of new scientific discoveries that led to a new understanding of color and the placement of contrasting and complimentary colors to created visual tension in their artworks.  Primary colors were brightest when they were brought into contrast with their complementaries. 

The Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas, 29 ¾ x 41 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

In terms of subject matter, along with landscapes and the cherished beauty observed in casual, everyday life, the early Impressionists were also very interested in modern urban life and suburban landscapes.  Monet’s “Saint-Lazare Station” (1877) celebrates the marvel of modernization and stunning architecture of the Saint-Lazarre station, a bustling terminus for several important train lines.   We can almost feel the energy of the steam trains coming and going amidst a sea of travelers—everything dissolved in expressive bursts of steam.  Monet created an astounding array of highlights and shadows in this painting without using any earth pigments.  Instead, he created his own palette of browns and grays by mixing new synthetic oil-paint colors (taken for granted today ) colors such as cobalt and cerulean blues, synthetic ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, chrome yellow, vermilion, and crimson lake.  Even his shadows are comprised of blended color.  The Lazare gare was a popular subject with the Impressionists and Manet’s “The Railway” (1872-73) currently in the National Gallery of Art, uses the station as a backdrop for his portrait of a young woman and child. 

Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, ”  (1875) depicts a mundane task that we can hardly imagine worthy of celebrating in paint– laborers stripping a wooden floor of its varnish.  The spectacular lighting renders it so otherworldly that several people have told me they just can’t get it out of their head.  The painting is also one of the first depictions of the urban proletariat as opposed to the rural peasants in Jean-François Millet’s “Gleaners” (1857) or “Normand Milkwoman on Her way to Gréville,” (1874).   Caillebotte’s vision was thoroughly modern, and his paintings offered treasured glimpses into Parisian life: interiors, views over the rooftops from balconies, strollers on the bridges and avenues.

The Floor Scrapers. 1875. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 57 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Impressionist Dialogues 

 Once the impressionist movement was born, there was no turning back and artists began to challenge classical values across the board.   Within a relatively short time period, Impressionist artists were depicting all aspects of daily and modern life with new grace and freedom. The show concludes with a number of works by Edgar Degas, all of which convey a very present sense of movement and immediacy.   Degas adopted new compositional approaches inspired by Japanese woodblock prints (in particular Hiroshige), photography and graphic illustration.  By studying series of photographs, he learned the technique of selective framing which allowed him to focus on exactly what he wanted to depict compositionally and to infuse his work with a sense of spontaneity.   Despite their spontaneous appearance though, Degas often made numerous preparatory studies.  The show offers several examples of his well-known paintings of racehorses and ballet dancers.  

I found the unusual intimacy of “The Pedicure” (1873) to be disturbing, no creepy.  An older man is clipping the toenails of a young girl who is reclining back on a sofa and appears to be sleeping or ill. She is shrouded in yards of sheeting and appears quite vulnerable.  Light streaming in through a window gives the scene a Rembrandtesque resonance.

 There is no pat answer to exactly what Impressionism exactly is –certainly, it was a different way of seeing and an art of immediacy, movement, great vibrancy and the exploration of everyday life—all captured in the play of light and color.  I can’t wait for the second installment.  END

Birth of Impressionism will have the following extended hours this week— 

Thursday, September 2, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Friday & Saturday, September 3 & 4, 2010, until 11 pm (last ticket 9:30 pm) 

Sunday, September 5, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Monday (Labor Day), September 6, 2010, until 9 pm (Last ticket 7:30 pm) 

Tickets and additional information:

September 1, 2010 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments