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Impressionism 101: Start in San Francisco

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday August 18, 2006

Radicals of the 1860s, they broke the rules and moved out of their studios. Away from poised portraits and still lives, they painted open-air scenes meant to capture everyday subjects in a passing moment. They painted with un-mixed vibrant colors in broad and daubed brushstrokes creating shimmering canvases bathed in light. The Impressionists turned their backs on academic painting, commanded attention and revolutionized the world of art. 

Claude Monet has been called the father of Impressionism. A collection of his paintings from Normandy is now on exhibit at the Legion of Honor. This exquisite body of work will whet your appetite for more, requiring a slightly longer field trip. Across the Atlantic, in Paris’ Musee D’Orsay, the artists of Impressionism offer a window on the evolution of a movement that spread beyond France and beyond visual art into music and literature. 

“Monet in Normandy” is the first exhibit highlighting Monet’s relationship with the area in which he spent much of his life. Its natural beauty—craggy limestone cliffs, crashing waves, seaside villages and harbors, quiet riverbanks—supplied inspiration for a lifetime of painting. In Normandy, Monet studied the light, atmosphere and nuances of season. 

Representing a span of over sixty years, fifty-three paintings reflect the stages of Monet’s life and career. In the 1860s the north coast featured prominently and The Garden at Sainte-Adresse is one of his most important seaside landscapes. The colors are bold and vivid with glittering sunshine on the sand and water. As with most of Monet’s work the perspective changes as the viewer moves back watching the scene shift. 

In 1870 Monet married and The Honeymoon at Trouville, along with several others, documents his honeymoon. Here, and in his Seaside Campaigns of the 1880s, the daubing technique becomes evident. In three weeks Monet created twenty paintings of the sea where swirling brushstrokes of purple, blue, green and white sequined power to the waves. 

As Monet’s relation with nature intensified he returned to the coast, focusing on landscapes and a recurring motif, the stone cottage. It was only when he needed money for his growing family that Monet added figures, creating paintings more saleable to his Paris clients. These landscapes, so reminiscent of our north coast, are my favorites. Bright sweeps of fields I ‘see’ as wildflowers, on closer examination, are mere daubs of paint, as are the figures themselves. 

Etretat, one of Normandy’s coastal treasures, was already a popular resort when Monet arrived. His solution was to select new, more challenging vantage points from which to capture the natural forms. In The Manneport and The Cliff, Monet’s geometric format brought order to a wild landscape; with his brushwork he created a mood of light and shadow.  

In 1883 Monet moved his family to Giverny and turned his attention to the surrounding countryside, the Seine, and his famous gardens. Twenty-five canvases were devoted to grainstacks with the light as much a subject as the stacks themselves, both infused with bands of soft pastels. 

A radical depiction of a religious icon sealed Monet’s reputation as an abstract artist. In Rouen, the capital of Normandy, Monet painted the cathedral repeatedly, from different angles and at different times of day, focusing on subtle changes in light. His Morning Effect canvas in soft toned blues that appear to be melting downward seemed to some viewers to be profane, making an integral part of history appear to dissolve. 

As the new century emerged the Giverny water gardens drove Monet. Inspired by the Japanese, the water, air and plant life combined into pattern, light and color, the culmination of Monet’s intimacy with nature. Canvases became larger as in the abstract Wisteria, with ribbons of color anchoring the composition, and Water Lilies, colors richly blending to create an overall mood of warmth and richness. 

In truth, Monet in Normandy was for me a very special encore, the main performance having taken place earlier during my stay in Paris. Touring the Musee D’Orsay, I feasted on the structure itself and its collection of 19th century French paintings. 

A reincarnation of the Gare d’Orsay, the Musee’s cathedral-like dimensions soar into a framework of glass and iron topped by a wonderful vaulted ceiling and two magnificent clocks. As I walked among the collections of fine arts, it was hard to imagine trains rumbling beneath my feet. 

Even if you’re there for the paintings, touring the ground floor sculpture promenade is a must. It’s here that you feel the full impact of the architecture while admiring the conservative slant of 19th century statuary. Balanced poses with perfect anatomy and curving lines in gleaming white stone are represented in La Source, Carpeaux and Lion Assis. On the mezzanine, Ours blanc resembles the Pepsi Polar bear, with simple lines and gentle face. 

A special vignette was my glimpse of future art enthusiasts. A group of French school children was seated before a marble sculpture, listening intently, occasionally jotting facts in a notebook, as the museum guide described the work and the artist. Later the scene was repeated before a display case of Degas sculptures. 

Away from architectural distractions, on the upper level, I toured galleries housing the museum’s collection of paintings. Never before had I encountered entire rooms devoted to the work of one artist, never before had I seen sufficient works to trace the evolution of a movement. Here I reveled in both. 

The Impressionist canvases of Renoir, Degas and Monet illustrate the birth of the movement: Renoir searching for the ideal in Bladu Moulin de la Galette, a waltzing blur of bright yellows; Degas’ interplay of realism and art in Au Cafe; Monet’s Coquelicots and Nympheas blue, flowers seeming adrift in field and pond. 

The paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne carried me toward Post-Impressionism, emphasizing structure and subject. In Van Gogh’s Self Portrait and La Meridienne the colors and swirling, curving brushstrokes hold strong emotion, even inanimate objects are infused with life. Cezanne’s canvases appear more impersonal, his still life edges more defined and the composition of greater importance than the subject matter. 

Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat and Gauguin moved further from the Impressionist ideal. Painting Montmartre’s underworld of outcasts, Toulouse-Lautrec caught his models in candid poses as in Jane Avril dansant. In Le Cirque, Neo-impressionist Seurat’s controlled daubs developed into pointillism, maximizing the luminous quality. Away from France, Gauguin painted his South Seas’ Eden using bright pure colors and simple flat images defined in black. The children in Le repas ou les bananes evoke the richness of their environment. 

Though continents apart, both exhibits were a feast for the eyes and soul. Art movements may come and go, the Impressionists transcend time and place. As close as San Francisco, as far as Paris, get lost in their color and form, applaud their courage and be thankful that museums exist to share these wonders. 




Through Sept.17 at the Legion of Honor. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Adults, $15; 13-17 years, $11; 12 and under, free. Lincoln Park, 34th and Clement, San Francisco, (415) 863-3330. www.thinker.org/legion.  


Smooth stone benches below an ornate ceiling seem the perfect spot to draw scuptures in the messanine of the Musée D’Orsay. Photograph by Marta Yamamoto.