Essays in beauty
by Sura Wood
With dedicated galleries devoted to Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Pierre-Auguste Renoir among its many pleasures, Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, a new show of 68 paintings now at the Legion of Honor, is about as close to heaven as one can get this season. An ode to spring in spirit if not necessarily in content, and an essay in beauty, the exhibition consists of works by Sisley, Pissarro, Gauguin, Monet, Cezanne, Degas and the other usual suspects, all of which are on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., while, you guessed it, the collection's home is undergoing renovation.
Also featured are Eugene Boudin, who persuaded Monet to paint outdoors and was known as the "King of Skies" for his vivid, translucent studies of mercurial marine conditions; Antoine Vollon's picture of a mile-high "Mound of Butter" (1875/85) that lets you know that you've truly landed in France; George Seurat's nearly miniature "Seascape (Gravelines)" (1890), in which the famed pointillist creates an illusion of a mosaic made of colored specks of sand; and Odilon Redon, the French Symbolist who's represented here by "Village by the Sea in Brittany" (ca. 1880), a jewel-like seascape with oceanic blues so exquisite it almost hurts to look at them.
The Legion's show, which covers the 1860s through the early 20th century with a few later pieces thrown in towards the end, is comprised mostly of small-scale paintings that were intended to hang inside homes rather than in grand spaces, and are meant to be viewed at close range. The opening gallery, which includes Corot and Manet, who were linked to the Impressionists but not of them, focuses on the 1860s, an electric, tumultuous period for French painting that followed the death of two stalwarts of French art, Ingres and Delacroix, and saw critics panicked over the future of the medium. Landscape was taking over, and a musical aesthetic that emphasized color, harmony and counterpoint supplanted the more traditional literary narratives. It was also an incipient era for the Impressionists, who were gathering strength and revving their engines. Their take-off started in 1874, when they began a series of eight sequential exhibitions outside the confines of the Paris Salon, which rejected them as uncouth and wasn't exactly open to the shock of the new, their revolutionary approach to nature, their unusual palette, or their overturning of convention.
The subject matter here is most often the artists' favorite places and their friends and families, like Renoir's 1872 portrait of his compatriot Monet, or Berthe Morisot's "The Artist's Sister at a Window" (1869). A serene painting expressing warm sisterly affection, Morisot's portrait of domestic bliss depicts her newly married and pregnant older sister sitting contemplatively in a chair in a voluminous white dress, demurely holding a fan, regarding the garden view and perhaps pondering the altered landscape of her life. Morisot, whose work is a welcome but all-too-infrequent sight, was a student of Corot and the sister-in-law of Manet, who introduced her to many of the Impressionists; she would become one of the first women to join their circle.
Renoir, who adored painting idyllic, sensual pleasures, luscious, beautiful women and lovely young girls, caresses the bare ivory shoulders and sweet face of his model in warm, luxuriant light that contrasts with an exotic lapis background in "Young Woman Braiding Her Hair" (1876). In "Madame Monet and Her Son" (1874), a carefree young boy in a blue sailor suit leans against his mother's white skirted lap as both recline on a green hillside; a rooster with a red comb keeps watch nearby, adding a touch of crimson to the afternoon outing. Manet and Renoir were said to have painted this same scene alongside each other. Later, a perturbed Manet complained to Monet that Renoir was not a very good painter and should keep his day job, advice that fortunately went unheeded.
The curators have assembled an intriguing rogue's gallery of self-portraits that appear throughout the exhibition. There's a dashing Vuillard at age 21; Henri Fantin-Latour, the very image of the intense artist as terrorist; a 23-year-old, open-faced Degas, looking like a gentle romantic; and of course, Gauguin, a bohemian agitator, a ruffian with a pointy satyr's ear, refining and reinventing his persona.
The final two sections of the exhibition highlight fellow Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard. The latter enters private domains and reveals personal candid moments with alacrity. He invites our gaze inside his modestly-scaled, intricately detailed ochre, brown and beige interiors in works such as "Two Women Drinking Coffee" (ca. 1893) and "Woman in Black" (ca. 1891). In " Child Wearing a Red Scarf" (ca. 1891), a sea of muddy browns interrupted by the bright blare of color, a little girl is seen from behind, a tiny figure holding hands with her brawny father. It seems fitting that the show concludes with Bonnard, a giant of modernism and the unparalleled master of patterning and lush color compositions. Those innovations, which only intensified and became more sophisticated over time, are in full view in "Table Set in a Garden" (1908), a quiet scene that beckons unseen guests and awaits revelry, while the gorgeous "Stairs in the Artist's Garden" (1942/44) ends the exhibition with a near-hallucinatory orchestration of feral color and verdant landscape kissed by the golden light of Southern France, promising a refuge from the onslaught of war, or any cares that might plague humanity.
Through August 3 at the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park at 100 34th Ave., SF. Info: (415) 750-3600.