Impressive Impressionist show at the de Young

Michael Raffety

June 2, 2010

One of those once-in-a lifetime art shows is on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Twenty-four years ago the French converted a defunct train station in Paris into what is now the national gallery of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art and other artwork from the period of 1848-1914. The Musee d’Orsay is now undergoing extensive renovations and updating. As result of its closure of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries some of the artwork will be on display on the ground floor of the d’Orsay while a terrific selection is now on display in San Francisco.

San Francisco is one of only two cities in the U.S. that will host the exhibit. See it now, because in September a whole new collection of paintings from the Musee d’Orsay will replace the one showing now at the de Young.

The show running through Sept. 6 is called Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay. Part deux arriving in late September will be Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay.

In all there are 120 pieces in the show. Shortly there will be one more as the de Young plans to add its own $3 million spring acquisition of the1881 painting, the Absinthe Drinkers by Jean-Franois Raffaelli.

Everybody has a pretty good idea of what Impressionist painting is. It is represented by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Pierre Auguste Renoir. The show catalogue ($34.95 softcover and $55 hardcover) in an English translation of an essay by Lynn Federle Orr says the Impressionists “sought to approximate the visual perception of temporal and atmospheric sensations” and used plein air painting to capture those “momentary visual effects.”

Though Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas are always included among the Impressionists, to me they never seemed to fit that desciption. Both were part of the group that met at the Cafe de la Nouvelle-Athnes in Paris. Manet was the acknowledged leader of the group that included writers and art critics such as Emile Zola. Degas participated in some of the Impressionist shows. Manet never did. The only show they were all in together was the Salon des Refuses sponsored by Napolean III in 1863 and put on adjacent to the regular Paris Salon, which had rejected the ‘new painting.” Manet kept entering his work in the regular Salon and challenging the academic painting judges to change and accept his art.

Much of Manet’s work has a flat appearance, a reflection of his collection and studying of Japanese prints. An additional influence is the Spanish art of Francisco Goya and Diego Velazguez, which accounts for ManetÕs use of black in so much of his paintings, and it’s not just because so many of the men’s suits and women’s clothes were black at that time.

His painting of the Fifer “deliberately combined the Spanish and Japanese influences that scholars and critics continued to praise for their abstract freshness and visual purity,” wrote Stephane Gugan in the English translation of a catalogue essay on Manet. The Fifer is a large canvas (63×38 inches) and was chosen as the pictorial talisman for show brochures.

Not in the show, but illustrated in the catalogue are Manet’s still startling paintings of Olympia, a nude allusion to Titian, and Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, featuring two clothed men on a picnic with a nude woman seated by them and a scantily clad woman bathing in the background. As Emile Zola noted, however, there are 50 paintings in the Louvre that have a mix of clothed and nude figures.

Another painting that many recognize of Manet’s, illustrated in the catalogue but not in the show since it belongs to the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London, is the painting of the bartenderess at the Folies-Begere.

The Manets in this show include portraits, an absolutely wonderful vase and floral arrangement and a moonlight scene at the Port of Boulogne.

Degas I feel I know best because of the photographic snapshot quality of his compositions.

I always remember a street scene painting of his in which the figures walk on and off the edges of the picture. This is also noted in the two horse race paintings of his that are in this exhibit.

Most of the horses are standing still, but in each of these two paintings he has one horse galloping. A Degas painting, At the Races (1869), at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, has them all trotting. Degas’ galloping horses are off a bit — not accurately rendered. It took photographer Eadweard Muybridge to show how a horse’s legs should look when galloping. Muybridge helped Leland Stanford win a bet that at one point in a horse’s gallop it would have all four hoofs off the ground. Muybridge set up a series of cameras along the race track that would be tripped off as the horse ran by. This was the first time a horse’s gallop had been accurately captured. Muybridge went on to do a whole series of motion studies not just of horses but of naked men and women performing various athletic endeavors. When a magazine Degas subscribed to carried Muybridge’s motion studies in December 1878 Degas made some horse wax statuettes. Muybridge’s book, Animal Locomotion, wasn’t published in its entirety until 1887. Afterward Degas improved his horse paintings.

His horse paintings have that photographic quality also, with horses and figures cut off by the edge of the painting. The flatness ˆ la Manet is an approach he picked not just from photography, but also from Japanese woodblock prints and graphic illustration, according to the catalogue essay on Degas by Mar’a Lopez Fernandez translated from French into English. Degas called it “selective framing.” Unlike Manet, though Degas’ paintings are colorful and generally lack the Spanish influenced black,

Despite what might seem a casual picture that leaves one with the impression it was done almost as quickly as a photo, that is far from the case. One of the race track paintings on display at the de Young has a date of 1866-68 and the other has a date of 1876-1887.

Asked about whether it took him that long to paint the picture or if it was uncertain when he painted the picture, John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said Degas would put away a painting and then pull it out at another time and add or subtract from it. “He was more interested in design and line,” Buchanan told me.

Degas made it clear that his art was carefully constructed: “There is nothing spontaneous about my art; it is all reflection,” Degas said. He would do a number of preparatory drawings before starting his painting. Whether it is his ballet paintings or women hopping in and out of bathtubs, it may look like action and modern life captured on canvas, but it is a very studied painting.

The fascinating Degas in the show at the de Young is At the Stock Exchange. It features three people, but only one is recognizable. It is Ernest May, an art collector who commissioned the painting. Despite the subjects standing, it conveys a sense of action and the feeling you are right there in stock market as the three bid, sell and buy.

The Impressionist show at the De Young runs through Sept. 5. Entrance fee is $20 for advance ticket sales, $25 at the door. Tickets may be purchased at For group tickets go to The de Young is in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Take Fell Street west from Gough or Franklin and it will take you straight into the park. Get there on a weekday morning and you can probably drive a little past the Arboretum and find a parking space. You may see a line, but that is most likely people waiting for the new Science Museum.


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