Triumphs of Impressionism spring to life in The City 

It’s a burst of color and motion, a flurry of blue, white and red brushstrokes, capturing an impression of a thousand French flags fluttering above the mass of figures in the street below.

Claude Monet’s “Rue Montorgueil, Paris. Festival of June 30, 1878” is one of those signature works of Impressionism known the world over from countless reproductions. But the painting comes thrillingly to life when you stand before it at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, a converted fin-de-siècle train station that houses the premier collection of 19th- and early 20th-century French art. Walking through the galleries, you encounter one great work after another, marveling at the blazing intensity of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, the play of dappled light in Renoir’s pleasure-filled pictures, a offers up works that captivate the eye, and stir the mind and spirit. Degas dancers. Cézanne landscapes. Gauguin’s Tahitian women.

Normally you’d have to go to Paris to see these treasures in one place. But now, while the Musée d’Orsay is partially closed for renovation, some of the most celebrated works in its collection — including Whistler’s Mother and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night over the Rhone” — come to San Francisco’s de Young Museum in two back-to-back exhibitions. The first, “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces From the Musée d’Orsay,” is on display through Sept. 6, followed by “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” running through January 2011. San Francisco, a sister city with close cultural ties to Paris, is the only place in the world where both of these magnificent shows will be presented.

For visitors attending both exhibitions, “it will be like a walk through the picture book of art history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” said John Buchanan, the French-art-loving director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He was walking beneath the great glass vault of the Musée d’Orsay last October, gazing at the works of Manet and Monet that changed the art of painting and the way we see the world.

Both artists figure prominently in “Birth of Impressionism,” which traces the evolution of the movement that rejected the rules of academic painting to bring forth a new art of light, color and immediacy. The exhibition places the early Impressionist works of Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Degas, Frédéric Bazille, Berthe Morisot and others in the context of the 19th-century traditions from which they emerged in the cosmopolitan swirl of Paris: Realism, naturalism, the officially sanctioned art of the Salon painters.

Visitors may be equally entranced by the flickering colors of Monet’s “The Seine at Vétheuil, Effect of Sun After the Rain,” painted in 1879, and the dreamy classical beauty of Salon painter William Adolphe Bouguereau’s famous “Birth of Venus,” painted the same year. The potent pictures of the Realist master Gustave Courbet — much admired by the Impressionists — come into view. So do the magical images of the Symbolist painter Gustave Doré. Then there are the noble peasants and moonlit meadows of Jean-Francois Millet, one of the Barbizon landscape painters whose passion for working directly from nature was shared by the young Impressionists.

Following in the footsteps of the artists who’d gathered in the village of Barbizon, Monet, Sisley and Bazille painted together in the Fontainebleau forest, developing the techniques that came to fruition in the beautiful paintings on view here. They’d met in the studio of Charles Gleyre, where they were trained in the classical tradition upheld by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. But Monet and his friends had no interest in painting the polished, dark-hued portraits and allegorical scenes favored by the art establishment. They wanted to depict the reality of everyday modern life — the crowds on the grand new boulevards of Second Empire Paris, people in parks and cafes, landscapes alive with color.

Leaving the studio to paint outdoors, en plein air, the Impressionists sought to render a scene as the eye first perceives it. They wanted the capture the shifting effects of light on objects and their shadows, the colors and movement of the moment. To record the ephemeral, they painted with quick, vigorous brushstrokes that animated the canvas and became a hallmark of the seductive new style.

“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment,” Monet once said. “But the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life — the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

The glowing landscapes and gardens of Pissarro, Monet and Renoir appear in profusion here. They instantly pull you in.

“With an Impressionist landscape, you have a sense of absolute empathy with what is represented. You have an immediate response to the painting,’’ said Guy Cogeval, the president and director of the Musée d’Orsay. “The Impressionists are the most popular artists in the world. Because there’s something very simple: The eye is the instrument of the art. When you look at a painting by David, you have to know about antiquity, you have to know classical theater. With the Impressionists, you say, ‘Oh, I was there, I saw that field.’”

Cogeval and his curators center the show on the landmark first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. Held in the Paris studio of the photographer Nadar, it featured the work of 30 artists collectively calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. Many of their works had been rejected in the past by the jury of the official Salon exhibitions, where reputations were made. So Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro and others organized their own exhibition, the first of eight held between 1874 and 1886.

The art was largely ridiculed by the press and public. The critic Louis Leroy derisively coined the term Impressionists after seeing Monet’s 1872 “Impression, Sunrise.”

“Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” wrote Leroy.

Undeterred, the artists who embraced the name Impressionism struggled for years until public taste caught up with them.

Some of the works from that first Impressionist exhibition are on view here, including Cézanne’s “House of the Hanged Man” from 1873-74, and Morisot’s masterpiece “The Cradle,” described in detail on the following pages of this supplement along with other key paintings.

One of the most famous works in the Orsay’s collection — Manet’s revolutionary 1863 painting “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,’’ which scandalized the French public with its frank portrayal of a nude woman in a modern setting — isn’t here. It’s a national French treasure that can’t leave the country. But a dozen other Manet works are on view. An exemplar of artistic freedom often called the first modernist, he was a huge influence on the Impressionists, who gathered around him in Parisian cafes. Manet encouraged their work, but declined to identify himself or exhibit with the Impressionists.

“Manet opens and ends the show,” said Stéphane Guégan, one of the Orsay curators who organized the exhibition with Fine Arts Museums curator Lynn Orr. “Manet stood very close to the Salon. There are a lot of references to the masters in his work, to Raphael and Titian. The story we tell is about the birth and evolution of Impressionism, but also about the interaction between academic painters and the modern ones. Manet is the link. Our mission is to show that interaction, not to isolate trends and movements, but to see them in relation to each other.”

The San Francisco exhibitions are sponsored by Bank of America, which has a long tradition of funding the arts. Museums in Madrid, Tokyo and other cities will show either the first or second Orsay exhibition. Getting both is a bonanza for San Francisco, a city beloved by the Orsay’s Cogeval, whose friendship with the Fine Arts Museums’ Buchanan paved the way.

Visionary artists have always struggled for acceptance, Cogeval said, but it was especially so for the Impressionists.

“It was a sort of revolution in the 19th century because the Impressionists were absolutely not accepted by the Salon,” he said. “It was a great battle by Manet, by Monet. They won the war after a series of provocations that started our way of thinking of the modern as a whole. I think that story unwraps extremely well in the two exhibitions showing in San Francisco. How lucky you are.”

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