“Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art” at the Legion of Honor

by Admin on 04/04/2014

Since its inception in 1915 by founders Adolf and Alma Spreckels to create a new art museum modeled after the French Pavilion at Panama Pacific International Exposition, which itself was a three-quarter-scaled replica of Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor’s commitment to the exhibition and preservation of European, particularly French heritage and culture through material objects, paintings to fully furnished historical rooms, has endured. Further in this regard, opening on Armistice Day in 1924, the Legion of Honor is dedicated to the California men who lost their lives in France during World War I. Including nearly 70 paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art confidently continues this commendable tradition. These paintings usually hang in permanent collection rooms at the National Gallery of Art in its East Building, but the current renovation of these exhibition spaces make this exhibition possible. Within Intimate Impressionism, curators Melissa Buron, Legion of Honor’s Associate Curator of European Art, and Mary Morton, curator and head of the National Gallery of Art department of French paintings, explore the particular qualities surrounding intimacy revealed in Impressionism, which made these works not only so avant-garde and shocking when presented in Nadar’s photography studio in 1874, but, almost paradoxically, why affection for these artworks has withstood for so long.

img_0894 Madame Monet and Her Son, 1874
Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art

Landscapes, portraits, and still lifes on view in the galleries are images perhaps now so commonplace to a majority of art audiences and so pervasive in commercial goods from umbrellas to bedding sets it is all but forgotten what outrage these paintings caused in art with their intimacy of scale, so-called “unfinished” nature with unmixed pigments and seemingly haphazard brushstrokes. Their style was so esoteric, this small clan of artists in the beginning were making no significant strides in influencing artists, academics or critics into their group. In 1874, the same year of the now infamous first exhibit of impressionist works, there were 3,657 entries in the Salon’s livret, which catalogued all accepted works in the annual Paris exhibition. Because artists were invited to submit three artworks for consideration in 1874, at least 1,000 artists were accepted to exhibit in this infamous art event that year alone. This certainly lies in stark contrast to the mere twenty or so artists now associated with Impressionism. Their novel way of painting and style however made a lasting effect. Just over a decade later (the last impressionist exhibition was in 1886) their small, sketch-like technique and chosen scenes became increasingly popular and even preferable to the large-scale historical paintings because of their vibrant, saturated colors, familiarity of subject matter and expressive style. This lead to further reinterpretation by the next era of artists, like post-impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin, and Vuillard and Bonnard of Les Nabis whose art are on view in the final exhibit galleries.


Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art

While seeking to capture everyday moments and common objects, and portray the lives of their inner circle, impressionist artists placed a hitherto unheard of emphasis on personal experience while progressing ideals of the artist not as a maker of beautiful things, but as an individual creator expressing their own interests.  In contrast to the paintings of the official Salon: large-scale historical narratives in a Neoclassical style like the large works of Jacques Louis David, impressionist art looked for subjects no further than their neighborhood: portraits of either themselves or friends, performers from the local dance halls, or the actors or audiences in local entertainment venues. Appropriate subject matter could range from Manet’s commission of a patrons’ spunky pet, Tama to Renoir’s touching portrait of his friend Claude Monet deep in thought, absentmindedly smoking a pipe while reading a book. Artworks also often became gifts to friends and family.  For more complicated scenes, such as those requiring travel to the seaside in the northern France or into the outlying fields and countryside, paintings of these quickly-passing moments and paint en plein air involved trudging paints, brushes, and canvas or board could not be cumbersome, had to dry quickly, thus could not be larger than what they could comfortably carry, so pictures were simple and of course intimate. In a like manner, the paintings’ dimensions and subject matter also reflect their intended display in domestic interiors, subjects at once compelling and pleasurable to see everyday and familiar to its owner, which the curators of Intimate Impressionism suggest with lines below and above artworks in the museum galleries that resemble wainscoting, chair rails, and picture rails common in homes of 19th century France.

Indeed, this ‘intimate’ artwork may not be the kind of grand scale that commands attention from across the room and strike the senses of viewers with its powerful mastery of realist depiction, but it instead beckons viewers into its space to give a peek into a slice of this created world. Subject matter, somewhat unassuming with its scenes of everyday urban and pastoral life rather than commemorating epic battles, great generals or French aristocracy and its lineage of kings and queens, does offer a special gaze into the life of people whose stories are not often told. Through Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art it it is certainly assured these close group of painters have found their unique way into one of the prominent tiers of art history on their own terms.


Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art” will be at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Legion of Honor through August 3, 2014


Edouard Vuillard, The Yellow Curtain, 1893
Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art