A glistening 10-foot-tall painting of “The Birth of Venus” greets visitors to the “Birth of Impressionism” summer exhibition in San Francisco.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), the painter of this glacial nude, once dazzled Parisians with his technically brilliant, emotionally empty canvases of old-time deities. Artists like Bouguereau made life tough for the younger radicals who became known as Impressionists.
This splendid show at the de Young Museum, drawn from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, is both a visual pleasure and a document of their struggle for acceptance and acclaim.
By the time the “Venus” was exhibited in the official Salon of 1879, things already were changing. The French had lost a disastrous war with the Prussians at the beginning of the decade, and the old order was losing its credibility. The “New Painting” depicted modern people in everyday settings with a looser, freer hand. Artists left their studios and moved into the streets and countryside for subject matter.
The exhibition is anchored by several monumental portraits of women who are every bit as dazzling as the “Venus” and a lot more believable.
There’s Jules Breton’s stern “The Harvester,” barefoot in long skirt, holding a bundle of wheat on her shoulder. There’s Carolus-Duran’s elegant “Lady With a Glove,” a sad yet beautiful young woman in a long black dress who turns her head to face the viewer as she pulls off her glove by the little finger. And there’s Edouard Manet’s seductive “Woman With Fans,” a black-clad Victorian who reclines on a sofa with a world-weary expression.
The most famous work may be Manet’s “The Fifer,” a full-length portrait of a teenage boy in an army uniform of black coat, bright red trousers and white sash against a neutral background. Its flatness drove conservative art critics nuts.
Manet, represented by 11 works, is arguably the star of the show. (There are 11 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 9 by Claude Monet, 7 by Camille Pissarro, 5 by Paul Cezanne, 5 by Edgar Degas.) Yet some of the most memorable images are by less-well-known artists such as Gustave Caillebotte and Frederic Bazille.
Caillebotte’s “The Floor Scrapers” shows three shirtless men on their hands and knees scraping varnish off the wooden floor of an apartment as light from a far window fills the room.
Painted in a narrow range of browns and tans, it’s a gorgeous study in contrasts: the curves of the men’s arms and the lacy grillwork in the window against the straight lines of the floorboards and paneling.
The exhibition evokes the social world of Impressionist artists, their studios and families. Many were friends and collaborators. There are portraits of Renoir by Bazille, of Bazille by Renoir, of Monet by Renoir, not to mention self-portraits by Cezanne and Pissarro. The show is not to be missed.
“Birth of Impressionism” runs through Sept. 6 at the M.H. de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Information: +1-415-750-3600. It opens at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville on Oct. 15. A second exhibition from the Musee d’Orsay, of Post-Impressionism, opens Sept. 25 at the de Young.
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)