‘Intimate Impressionism’ at Legion of Honor

By Michael Raffety 4-7-14

Sixty-eight impressionist and Nabi paintings are now on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. From the collection on the ground floor of the east wing of the National Gallery of Art, they will remain through Aug. 3 at the Legion of Art on 34th Avenue in Lincoln Park.

There is always an interesting story on how the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco round up these big art shows. This one came to San Francisco because museum Board President Diane B. Wilsey was born and raised in Washington, D.C. A good friend from her youth was Rusty Powell, who is now director of the National Gallery of Art. So she took Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III out to dinner and said, “What have you got for me?” Voilà. The National Gallery is remodeling the I.M. Pei east wing and thus an exhibit is born.

In those days the National Gallery was popularly known as the Mellon Museum. That was because the core of the collection was donated by Andrew Mellon and the neoclassical building was completely funded by Mellon, who died two months after ground was broken in 1937. Mellon, a wealthy banker and industrialist, had been secretary of the treasury from 1921 to 1932. He had been appointed by President Warren G. Harding and worked for Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

The 1920s were an economically exciting time because of Mellon, whose program was to cut taxes for the top rate from 74 percent to 24 percent. For the low-income, he wanted to cut taxes from 4 percent to 1/2 percent. This freed up a lot of money. To discourage tax shelters he cut the estate tax. He also advocated cutting government workers and reducing the size of paper money so it would fit in a person’s wallet. It took Congress eight years to achieve these goals in a series of tax cuts. Then the Depression hit and Hoover didn’t follow Mellon’s advice, instead intervening in the economy, something Hoover was unfamiliar with. The Depression continued until World War II brought full employment as millions were drafted and war production employed additional millions.

Andrew Mellon’s son Paul and daughter Ailsa Mellon Bruce continued his art collection and patronage. They both funded additions to the National Gallery’s collection and they started their own private collections. Paul and Ailsa competed in collecting Impressionist paintings.

Of the 68 paintings in this exhibition at the Legion of Honor 29 are from Ailsa’s personal collection and 26 from Paul’s. The real coup achieved by Ailsa was her acquisition in 1955 of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection of Parisian couturier Edward Molyneux.

The Molyneux collection, for which she paid $950,000, includes paintings by Édouard Vuillard, whose flat paintings echo Japanese woodcuts and seem to presage American mid-20th century art. Often relying on fascinating patterns of fabric and dense color, Vuilard’s paintings invite careful study and a second look.

A compatriot of Vuillard is Pierre Bonnard, whose pieces in this exhibition are remarkable for the increasing intensity of color used in outdoor garden scenes until we get to the absolute riot of color named “Stairs in the Artist’s Garden,” 1942/1944. Bonnard died on the French Riviera in 1947 (he was born in 1867).

Bonnard and Vuillard were among a group who followed Paul Gauguin and called themselves Nabis, Hebrew for prophets. Bonnard’s work is largely characterized by his intensity of color.

The reason the paintings in this exhibit are called “intimate” is because they were not painted for the salon or for exhibition. They were painted for display in a home, thus they are smaller — on a more intimate scale. The Impressionist works are among the favorites of museum-goers. Included in this show are all the big names and paintings that many will be familiar with from books — Édouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Eugène Boudin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a few others and a stunning painting of “Flower Beds in Holland” by Vincent Van Gogh.

You’ve got to love that group. And you’ve got to see them. It will save you a trip to Washington, D.C.


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