‘Birth of Impressionism’ exhibit is painting the town red 

What your home may have in common with French impressionists is paint by Benjamin Moore.

No, Monet and Renoir did not use the product, but visitors to the de Young Museum’s “Birth of Impressionism,” opening Saturday, will walk through a dark rainbow of Benjamin Moore Regal Flat acrylic paint colors, which change from gallery to gallery.

The strong colors are intended to provide the background to the exhibit.

As homeowners spend hours deciding about wall colors in their houses, de Young curator Lynn Federle Orr, exhibition designer Bill White and lighting designer Bill Huggins spent many days thinking through their task of arranging 100 masterpieces on the museum’s walls.

They used sample books, then held paint-color cardboards against the specific artworks, and had to take into consideration the low lighting allowed for the exhibit.

Rather than the light, neutral wall colors seen in many museums — including much of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, where the exhibit comes from — Orr uses strong, mostly dark hues.

At the Orsay, the current big renovation will replace light-colored stone walls, which wash out the art, with painted plaster. At the de Young, black-and-gray paintings are displayed against Topeka taupe, a medium-dark shade of brown. Why?

“When you place dark paintings against a light surface,” Orr says, “the eye closes up, details of the painting become lost. Deeper-tone, midrange colors relax the eyes, enable the viewer to see more of the painting.”

Orr prefers “environment that fades away.”

“A restricted, restrained color scheme brings out the painting’s palette,” she says. “Brown is especially marvelous as a background.”

Orr’s “interior design” also is seen in the recently redesigned Italian collection at the Legion of Honor, where she introduced new wall colors and new groupings of paintings. She allows that choices ultimately are based on personal and subjective preference.

Works in the de Young exhibit are not arranged chronologically; the partitioning is based on large themes in the development of impressionism.

The introductory gallery has classic burgundy walls. The color returns for galleries on the Salon and the Terrible Year — referring to 1870-71, which saw war, defeat and civil war in France, deeply affecting the lives and careers of artists.

Spanish influence and new painting galleries are set in Topeka taupe. Gray mountain is the background for works associated with École des Batignolles (the Paris neighborhood frequented by young painters, just north of the Gare Saint-Lazare).

Classic impressionism is exhibited against the periwinkle blue of amethyst shadow — Orr says it “really brings out purples, red, pinks.”

Galleries with works by Cézanne, Pissarro and Degas use Seminole brown, the rusty bricklike color frequently seen in Santa Fe, N.M.


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 open May 31 and Sept. 6; 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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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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