Impressions of the City of Light 

What was Paris like in the heyday of Manet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec? You get a vivid sense of it when you wander through “City of Light: Impressionist Paris,” an evocative exhibition that portrays the magic city on the Seine from the mid-19th century to the turn of the 20th.

The show, which fills the special exhibition galleries at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, takes you into the streets, theaters and private spaces of the cosmopolitan capital that fueled the Impressionists and many other artists. You see the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the sun and glowing at night, the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, Belle Époque opera patrons and cabaret characters, crowds on the boulevards, women at their toilette, circus spectacles and intimate bourgeois interiors.

Drawn primarily from the splendid collection of the museum’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, “Impressionist Paris,” which complements the “Birth of Impressionism” at the de Young, features 185 prints, photographs and paintings, including works by Daumier, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Bonnard, Vuillard, James Tissot, Mary Cassatt and Lautrec.

You see Paris before and after it was modernized by urban planner Baron Haussmann for Napoleon III in the 1850s and ’60s, when the dark, grimy streets of the medieval city were replaced by the bustling boulevards of the new City of Light. You see images of death and destruction from the Prussian assault on Paris in 1870-71 and the civil war that ensued, and the great flowering of art in the years that followed.

The old city is revealed in Charles Meryon’s meticulous etchings and in the work of photographer Charles Marville, the official photographer of the City of Paris, who documented the urban transformation. His 1865 picture “Rue des Sept-Voies de la rue St. Hilaire” depicts the dank little rue des Sept-Voies, with the Pantheon partially visible at the far end of the passageway.

Old Paris gives way to the dynamic new city in one section of the show called “Street Life.” Marville’s pictures of the gas lamps that lit up Paris and stimulated nightlife come into view. So do beautiful color lithographs of street scenes by Bonnard and Vuillard, including the latter’s richly patterned “The Pastry Shop.”

“Many of these artists were seriously involved in printmaking,” says Jim Ganz, the Achenbach Foundation curator who organized the exhibition. “The graphic arts were an important aspect of their production. They were published, collected and shown in the Impressionist exhibitions. Degas, of course, was obsessed with etching and printmaking.”

In addition to Degas’ prints, one of his celebrated pastel drawings, “Seated Bather Drying her Neck” is on view, as well as his classic 1870 painting “Musicians in the Orchestra,” owned by the Fine Arts Museums. It’s one of many works that evoke glamorous Paris as a city of spectacles and spectators, “a place to see and be seen,” as Ganz puts it.

Another is Renoir’s rich “La Loge,” which portrays a fashionable Parisian couple sitting in a theater box. The white-gloved gent peers through his binoculars at the balcony above, while the lavishly gowned young woman gazes right at us. Spectacles of a different sort took place at Paris’ Hippodrome, a popular entertainment venue that held thousands. In his detailed etching “Ladies of the Chariots,” James Tissot depicts the horse-riding “Amazons” who raced there.

Nothing can compare with the thrill of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person. But the images of it here surprise and delight and make you wish you were in Paris. The great iron tower seems to float and dissolve in Pierre Dubreuil’s dreamy photograph “Eléphantaisie,” rising behind the elephant trapped in the foreground. One of the two known prints of Dubreuil’s iconic 1908 picture, the photograph entered the museum’s collection last fall and is being shown here for the first time. The bronze elephant, created by sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet for the 1877 Paris world’s fair, now stands in front of the Musée d’Orsay, home to the paintings on view at de Young. Then there’s Seurat’s shimmering pointillist painting of the tower, made while the structure’s third level was still under construction. (The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair.)

Visitors will also delight in the dazzling color posters that proliferated on the streets of Paris in the 1890s. The posters of Lautrec, Jules Chéret, Alphonse Mucha and others — advertising everything from theater shows to cigarette papers to motorized tricycles — hum with the glamour, wit and style of Belle Époque Paris.

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Staff Report

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