A uniquely impressive exhibit at the de Young 

Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” opening on Saturday, is simply breathtaking.

Imagine being surrounded by 94 masterpieces, every one of which would be a treat to see alone.

Standing inches away from works by Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and beyond — including great but lesser known artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Frédéric Bazille — becomes somewhat overwhelming.

Golden Gate Park sparkles in spring, and the Herzog & de ­Meuron-­built museum’s permanent riches now have the unique added attraction of this world-class exhibit, brilliantly organized and displayed by curator Lynn Federle Orr.

The paintings are on loan from the Musée d’Orsay of Paris, which is undergoing a major renovation. It is a collection the likes of which will never travel outside France again, according to French President Nicolas Sarkozy himself.

At Wednesday’s preview, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director John E. Buchanan emphasized the point: “These are some of the seminal works of art we could otherwise see only in Paris or in history books.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom paid lavish tribute to Buchanan, Musée d’Orsay President Guy Cogeval and Dede Wilsey, head of the FAMSF board of trustees, for their work on this show and on behalf of the subsequent “Post-­Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” coming in September.

Large anticipated audiences for the two shows, Newsom said, may even improve on the 42 percent increase in local museum attendance from 2009 to this year, remarkable in face of the economic downturn.

Cogeval, who has lived with the masterpieces for Orsay’s 25 years, hailed the work of Orr and de Young officials in setting up an exhibit, he said, “where I saw new details of paintings, stunned by the beauty of their presentation.”

In the space where recently King Tut wowed visitors, Orr has structured an exhibit with equal emphasis on “birth” and “impressionism.”

Rather than presenting a mere hit parade, the show has depth and context, illuminating the artistic style’s many characteristics, including visible brush strokes, an emphasis on changing light and movement, and focus on everyday people and ­subjects.

Paintings are set against medium-dark wall colors, in contrast with Orsay’s light-colored stone walls, which wash out the art instead of providing a matching-and-contrasting background. Orsay will look more like the San Francisco galleries when the renovation is completed there.

From the zenith of the movement come the well-known classic Impressionism images of Monet’s 1877 “The Gare Saint-Lazare” and Renoir’s 1876 “The Swing.”

But there are also early, and still “representational,” examples of the new painting including Manet’s 1866 “The Fifer” and Caillebotte’s dark and powerful 1875 “The Floor Scrapers” — another prominently realistic painting, but with all kinds of connections to the movement.

“The Fifer,” the poster child of the show, doesn’t have the surface characteristics of impressionism, but it was rejected by the official art establishment called the Salon and championed by Emile Zola; it eventually was displayed at an impressionist show.

What is James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 “Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1,” aka “Whistler’s Mother,” doing here, with its sharp, almost photographic images? The context in which it’s placed at the exhibit makes the work’s role in the “new painting” abundantly clear.

The term impressionism originated with a negative review of Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” — a painting not in this exhibit — in which the critic Louis Leroy used the word pejoratively, denouncing the Monet painting and similar works as “unfinished and lacking in recognizable details.”

As visitors go through — probably several times — “The Birth of Impressionism,” they likely will come to their own understanding of the phases and characteristics of the many-splendored art movement of the “new painting.”

ART REVIEW

Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: Opens Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays (last ticket at 4 p.m.); 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays (last ticket at 7:30 p.m.); closed Mondays except May 31 and Sept, 6; exhibit closes Sept. 6
Tickets: $8 to $25
Contact: (888) 901-6645; www.deyoungmuseum.org
For groups: (415) 750-3620; e-mail groupsales@famsf.org

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