Because the Musee D’Orsay in Paris will be closed for renovations and because “our” Dede Wilsey, President of the Board of Directors of the de Young and John Buchanan, director of the de Young have the connections, the cachet and the bargaining skills, San Francisco is getting three separate and equally fabulous exhibits, detailing much that is most important in 19th Century French art.
The first of the exhibits opens on Saturday at the De Young. I was able to preview the show yesterday and it really is full of significant pieces. Most importantly, it places the Impressionists and their followers within the context of the academic art of the period.
The exhibit has been carefully laid out by topic, instead of chronology, so it’s possible to see the overlaps in style as well as admire pieces that we have only seen in reproduction. The De Young also repainted the galleries; instead of generic museum white, the walls are now in strong, dark hues ranging from Venetian red to taupe to a Seminole brown which perfectly sets off the Degas and Cezanne in the last gallery before you exit the exhibit. Every room has places for the visitor to sit; in the first three galleries, the seats are puffy round ottomans, covered in plush crimson velvet, perfect for imagining that you are in one of the rooms of the period. The lower ceiling of the exhibit area increases the feeling of intimacy. The paintings are hung slightly higher to allow viewers to see the pieces over the inevitable crowd. The installation is one of the best that I’ve seen and the lighting is superb. There’s not a misplaced track light or a piece that you can’t see because of the glare of light on glass.
The exhibit is particularly strong in academic 19th century French painting. Along with the (now) more famous names, “Birth of Impressionism” visitors will encounter such artists as Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Léopold Lévy, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Alexandre Cabanel and Antoine Vollon. The “Birth” in the show’s title is an important clue about the exhibit. Far from an Impressionist catalog, this is a show about the context, genesis and evolution of what was so aptly called in its time the “New Painting.” A lot of the art, and the ideas behind it, are likely to be discoveries for the attentive viewer.
“The premise has always been an attempt to show the artistic community as the Impressionists knew it,” says Lynne Orr, the de Young European art curator who worked on the show, “and the pressures and tensions within that community.”
The academic focus of this stage of the show is very apparent in the first three galleries, where Burgundy- tinted walls are hung with history paintings, mythological fantasies and the grittier Realism of Millet and Courbet. It was in the official exhibitions, as a text panel in the show puts it, that “famous and still-aspiring artists vied for recognition, staking their claims for fame, fortune and posterity.” As Eric Zafran writes in the show’s excellent catalog, “This struggle for validation runs like a leitmotif through the lives of all French painters, but for the Impressionists it was an especially contentious issue, often conflicting with their desire to exhibit as an independent group.” Impressionism was a “resolute intruder,” in poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s phrase.
Some, like Manet, never made their peace with being an outsider; he yearned for acceptance by the Academy and only got it in the final years of his life, when he was in pain and dying from the syphilis which eventually killed him. Other artists, like Cezanne, were defiantly against the Academy but in 1874, the year of the famous Salon De Refusés, most of whom we now call Impressionists still tried for acceptance in the official yearly salon which was the gateway to financial success.
Later, when the grip of the Academy had finally been broken, they triumphantly owned the label but by that time, their work had become officially accepted, even bourgeois!
When you enter the first gallery, you are facing Bouguereau’s The Birth of Venus, the epitome of 19th century academic painting. The piece. complete with richly carved and gilded frame, takes up the entire wall and is a textbook example of 19th century attitudes toward women (his Venus curves in pliant submission to the male gaze, carefully coy, eyes averted) and nudity (mythological references, therefore socially permissible). He’s completely out of fashion yet I found the painting fun. It’s a frothy, creamy, wedding cake of a painting, beautifully painted with a glossy finish, satin skin tones and an eroticism that was fashionable in the time (look Ma, no pubic hair).
In the next gallery, among the portraits of society women and the history paintings, the piece that stood out for me was Moreau’s Galatea. The subject of this painting has been taken from the 12th fable of Book XIII in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which tells the story of the Cyclops Polyphemus’ jealousy over Galatea’s love for the shepherd Acis. This vegetation looks supernatural but was derived from drawings meticulously copied from a book of marine botany in the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, where Moreau had registered as an unofficial student in 1879. The rubbed, scratched texture of the oil paint gives the work a precious, enamelled look. The Salon of 1880 was the last in which Moreau took part. Galatea was a triumph there and marked the height of his career.
Although the museum claims that Manet is the fulcrum of the show, I found this section very light. The splendid ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and his equally luscious and controversial Olympia couldn’t travel because they are considered too important – both are treasures of France. There are a couple of portraits, one of which shows the influence of Spanish painting in its harsh black and white contrasts, the Fifer and two exquisite, small still life pieces. I think that the bulk of the Manet pieces will come in the fall. There’s a room of Monet’s iconic and very popular masterpieces. The show ends with a room full of Degas and Cezanne’s pieces, one of which (The Bridge) is probably my favorite painting in the whole show.
Manet’s small painting of asparagus is easy to miss but it’s one of the more exquisite and subtle paintings by him that are up in this section of the exhibit. The “mother” canvas was painted on a black background, rather like the Dutch still lifes of the17th century. Here, Manet creates a very subtle interplay between the mauves and greys of the asparagus and the color of the marble on which it lies.
Bazille’s painting of his family (1867) is far more stunning than any reproduction can show. It takes up almost all of one wall and the strong contrasts show Bazille’s liking for the light of the South of France. The group is in the shade of a large tree, which accentuates the bright colors of the landscape and the sky. The light filtered by the foliage enhances the pale clothes, contrasting with the dark note of the jackets, a shawl or an apron. He was killed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, another one of arts tragic losses to the random brutality of war.
The last room has at least four pieces by Degas but what stood out for me was his piece “The Parade.” What’s enticing about this is his incredible draftsmanship. It’s not a large piece and the perspective is flattened but that makes the graphic design stand out even more. I also had never thought of his color palate; here it’s muted tans, blues and grays yet the piece is not drab or somber. Degas renders the atmosphere of a racecourse where only the nervous movement of the last thoroughbred horse indicates the imminence of the start. By choosing this moment, banal in appearance, Degas manifested his will to reduce the role of the “subject matter” as such in his painting. He gave prevalence to light and lines: he was more interested in the silhouettes of riders and their mounts than in the start of the race. He deliberately neglected some of the elements that would allow identification of the place and of the owners of the horses, such as the colors of shirts. The diagonal motifs of the painting, the strong contrasts of light, in particular the shadows of the horses also reinforce the perspective down to the vanishing point located in the center, emphasizing the last jockey.
Then, of course, there’s Whistler’s “Mother.”
I have a confession to make. I’ve never liked this painting. I find it cold, dark and boring. But it’s installed in a place of honor and it’s certainly important in the history of art. I’m glad that it’s showing but I wish that the d’Orsay had shipped some of Whistler’s more colorful works.
Go, look and marvel. Don’t let any “expert” tell you that you’ve seen it all before. Yes, it’s a blockbuster. SO WHAT! Even if you’ve visited Paris (and how many of us have), the opportunity to see these paintings is not to be missed. Look for the details – how the subject matter, what the real sizes of the pieces are, the frames, the finish, the curls of paint, even paint texture change as you move through the galleries. Stéphane Guégan, the Orsay’s lead curator of the show said, “It’s not just another exhibition of Impressionism. It’s an occasion to look differently at these masterpieces.” And, Buchanan said, “this will never happen again. The Orsay is very generous in lending single pictures to exhibitions, but it will never again loan these pictures in this configuration — never, ever.”
Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay opening at the De Young this Saturday, May 22nd. (Images from the Musee d’Orsay).