Birth of Impressionism, death of kings

Stéphane Mallarmé. 1876. Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas. 11 x 14 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

By Bob Hicks

SAN FRANCISCO — Two clichés come to mind today: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

I wouldn’t call my attitude toward Impressionist painting contempt, exactly. Far from it: This is great stuff, and you’d have to be a fool not to recognize that, even if, as in my case, your attention has been elsewhere of late.

I confess to having had a touch of fatigue, a sense of been-there-seen-that, a feeling that yesterday’s artistic revolution had become today’s wallpaper, the essence of nice. (Another cliché pops into my head: “guilt by association.” I gradually came to undervalue the real thing, I think, on the evidence of innumerable encounters with contemporary paintings in which a sort of generic, Impressionist-lite fuzzing of the image attempts to obscure the artists’ inability to be compelling or precise.)

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 LewandowskiThank you, Musee d’Orsay and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for shaking me out of that nonsense. Birth of Impressionism, the show of masterworks from the Paris museum on display through Sept. 6 at the Fine Arts Museums’ de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, reinvigorates the Impressionistic moment by putting it in the context of its own time and the art world that existed when it knocked on the door and was found unsuitable company for dinner with the establishment.

That historical grounding had been absent from my thinking for a while. It reminded me of why the Impressionist movement was groundbreaking, and reawakened my fondness for works whose value should have been self-evident. (A followup exhibition from the d’Orsay, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, opens Sept. 25 and runs through Jan. 18, 2011.)

An expansive show of more than 100 paintings, Birth of Impressionism roams freely through eleven galleries in the de Young, and besides providing a feast of first-rate eye candy it’s laid out with great intelligence, separate galleries dealing with subjects as diverse as the Spanish influence of Goya and others to “The Terrible Year,” the French army’s devastation in the Franco-Prussian war and the resulting political fall of the Second Empire in 1870. The latter topic resulted in paintings as wildly different as Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier‘s 1884 The Siege of Paris (1870-1871), with its dead soldiers and dying horses, and Gustave Doré‘s strange, massive, blue-gray, eerily symbolic 1871 painting The Enigma.

Snow at Louvenciennes. 1878. Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé LewandowskiBut maybe the smartest move in the installation and selection of works was to open the exhibit with several florid examples of what the Impressionists and their slightly earlier innovators such as Courbet and Millet were up against: the huge, symbol-laden, technically assured but creakily out-of-their-time gestures that were favored by the Academy and the official Salon. With leftover subject matter and technique from the Renaissance and Baroque periods but without the web of cultural belief and genuine invention that supported the visions of the old masters, works such as Adolphe-William Bouguereau‘s 1879 Birth of Venus, with its conch-blowing demigods and its cavorting cherubs in the sky, are the height of kitsch. (Could it have been so obvious at the time, or have the intervening 140 years heightened the effect?) A visual language that was not only acceptable but almost necessary in earlier centuries, because it reflected the dominant beliefs and power structure of its time and place, became an empty shell in ornate late 19th century paintings such as Henri Léopold Lévy‘s 1874 Sarpedon, with its curious blend of Christian and classical Greek symbolism. What did this have to do with the France of the 1860s and 1870s? These paintings were antiques the day they were born. Not even that: manufactures; instant artifacts without the ripening strength of time — neither of the time in which they were created nor the hazily remembered time to which they aspired.

There are a thousand ways to approach this exhibition, from purely aesthetic to purely cultural. The prominence the exhibit gives these Salon-approved paintings makes me think of it in a large political and historical sense: the triumph of Impressionism is the triumph of bourgeois values over royal command. It’s the end of divine right.

The Fifer.  1866.  Édouard Manet (1832-1883).  Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 38 1/4 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé LewandowskiI don’t want to say that with the ascendancy of these new (mostly) French painters, God was dead. I mean simply that, if He was there, he was in the background, far less important than the physical here and now and matters of texture and comfort. In a sense, the ascendancy of Impressionism marked an aesthetic passage, finally, from the age of aristocracy to the age of mercantilism. Camille Pissarro‘s red-roofed village house became more important, and certainly more immediate, than images of angels at home in the clouds.

Impressionism arose in a century of social upheaval that would only escalate in the 20th century with the downfall of the czars and the relegation of surviving royal families in England and elsewhere to mostly figurehead status. The aristocracy had a keen vested interest in supporting a kind of religious or quasi-religious form of art that upheld a natural hierarchy: from God to king to populace. If the universe is ruled by a god whose steward on earth is a king, then political order is established not just with a firm line of authority but also with an inviolable line of moral right: the aristocracy rules because it is God’s will. By the middle of the 19th century that worm had turned, but the Academy and the Salon, stuck in their bureaucratic morasses, hadn’t heard the news.

The young artists were eager to press it on them. Eric Zafran, in an essay in the exhibition catalog, quotes the young painter Frédéric Bazille‘s enthusiastically pugilistic letter to his parents in 1869 (only a year before he was to die at war, at age 29) after learning about the Salon’s rejection of most of his friends:

The jury wreaked havoc among the canvases of the four or five young painters we like. Only one of my canvases was accepted, that of a woman. Except for Manet whom they no longer dare reject, I am among the least badly treated. Monet was entirely rejected. What pleases me is that there is real animosity directed against us. The fault lies entirely with Mr. Gérome [the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérome], who treated us like a band of madmen, saying that he felt it his duty to keep our paintings from being shown.

Gérome and accomplices were trying to stop an avalanche with a tennis racquet. The Impressionists and other modern painters were reinvigorating painting with fresh ideas about light, space and color in addition to subject matter, and those ideas simply couldn’t be held back.

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

The examples of their successful experimentation are legion in this show, from the proletariat realism (though the artist himself was upper-class Parisian) of Gustave Caillebotte‘s 1875 The Floor Scrapers to The Gare Saint-Lazare, Claude Monet‘s astonishing 1877 illumination of color and light as a train pulls into a city depot (an emblematic painting for this show, since the Musée d’Orsay is housed in an old train station).

Edouard Manet‘s key position in the transition from old to new is exceedingly well-represented in this exhibit, in which he seems a master among masters. His small 1876 portrait of the writer Stéphane Mallarmé (who referred to it as a “curious wee painting”) is intimate and unguarded and bounding with affection and life. The Escape of Rochefort (1881) is a wall-grabber — a big swath of rippling blue, with a tiny rowboat bobbing near the center. The colors and composition are amazing, and the painting’s daring only deepens when you learn of its subject. Henri Rochefort was a political enemy of Napoleon III who was imprisoned for his involvement in the Paris Commune; Manet’s painting depicts his risky escape from an island penal colony. A radical painting, indeed. In a stroke of visual brilliance, it is paired on the wall with Manet’s wispy, compellingly structural portrait of an asparagus stalk lying on the edge of a table: the subjects so different, the techniques so similar. And in a way the Salon’s refusal of Manet’s 1866 painting The Fifer (compare it with Chaim Soutine‘s The Little Pastry Chef at the Portland Art Museum) was the shot that sparked the war.

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

Bazille also provides a fascinating transitional painting with his 1867 Family Reunion, a group portrait on an utterly conventional theme but painted with an unsettling sense of drama. Things are happening in this group; relationships are in flux. Check out the young woman leaning forward intently at the right.

This show is a blockbuster, with all the bells and whistles and promotional clatter that John Buchanan, the Fine Arts Museums’ director, was known for when he was director of the Portland Art Museum. As in Portland, Buchanan’s tenure in San Francisco has brought controversy: His critics complain about shows on fashion and design, for instance, and often about the P.T. Barnum aspects of the blockbuster approach itself: Just last fall he brought King Tut, the crowd-enthralling gold standard of blockbusters, back to town.

But as he did in Portland, he’s brought audiences inside the museum doors — and as with so many of the Portland shows produced under his watch, Birth of Impressionism is a blockbuster with genuine artistic and intellectual depth.

If he seemed like he was in constant motion in Portland, it’s trebled in the Bay Area: “It’s been 24/7 since I got here,” Buchanan told me in a brief conversation before I saw the exhibit. He arrived shortly after the de Young opened in its new building, so he didn’t have to deal with the kind of capital campaign that consumed much of his time in Portland. But the fundraising in San Francisco hadn’t added materially to the museums’ endowment, and he was faced with programming two museums (the de Young and the nearby Legion of Honor), making the programming of the two spaces work together, rebuilding the budget and capitalizing on the enthusiasm generated by the opening of the new de Young space. Those pressures haven’t abated.

There is excitement in the city about this exhibit, and there are crowds at the de Young: When I went the lobby was a madhouse, but the timed entry system was so efficient that, although I was seeing the show with a lot of other people, I didn’t feel crowded or rushed. (In fact, once I’d gone through the eleven galleries I slowly retraced my steps and started over again.)

This exhibit’s most famous work, at least in the United States, is Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, better-known as Whistler’s Mother. It’s a tribute to San Francisco museum audiences and to the standards of this show that people weren’t crowded around James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s famous portrait like Mona Lisa oglers at the Louvre: They were spending due time with it when they got to that part of the exhibit, then moving along. I’d never seen Whistler’s Mother in the flesh, and I’d come to think of it in its purely compositional framework, as an experiment in color and shape. It is that, certainly. But up close, I was also struck by what a probing study of aging it is: The lines and creases on the model’s face, which so often are characterized as a sort of Protestant tightness, seem instead the stamp of time. Mrs. Whistler’s body has declined with age, but she carries on, not stoically so much as realistically.

At least, that’s my impression.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1; Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.  1871.  James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).  Oil on canvas, 56 3/4 x 64 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski



— Stéphane Mallarmé. 1876. Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas. 11 x 14 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

— 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.

— Snow at Louvenciennes. 1878. Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

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

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

— Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1; Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. 1871. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Oil on canvas, 56 3/4 x 64 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski