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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.)

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