Impressionist exhibit shows emergence of modern Paris

— Paris emerged from bloody turmoil in the early 1870s to become the cultural center of Europe, and an exhibition offers a sampling of the art that accompanied the transformation.

The exhibition, "Paris in the Age of Impressionism," comes to the High Museum of Art from the French government's collection at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

The show is designed to illustrate "the texture of life" in late 19th-century France, said High Museum director Michael Shapiro. It includes paintings by impressionists and their contemporaries and work of a slightly later period as well as sculpture, decorative art and numerous photographs of the Eiffel Tower.

"It's a genuinely thrilling show. I'm in awe that so many masterpieces have been allowed out of France," art historian Adam Gopnik said after a preview tour of the exhibition, which opened Saturday and runs through March 16 before moving to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

In the early 1870s, war with Prussia was followed by civil strife that included a takeover of Paris by the working-class Commune. The Commune later was suppressed by the government, and the city was under martial law for about five years.

During that time, impressionism arose and helped change the direction of society, Gopnik said in a lecture at the museum.

"The impressionists chose to paint sunny days with dappled sunlight and small pleasures. They were trying to show another reality you could build a future out of," he said.

The painting that introduces the exhibition, Monet's "Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878," exemplifies that notion, Gopnik said. The government chose June 30 over July 14, Bastille Day, which it considered too inflammatory.

Monet's painting is not political, "but it says there's something good simply in the act of celebrating," Gopnik said.

Many of the works have never before left France. One painting, "Absinthe" by Degas, "is one of the great masterpieces in the history of art," said curator David Brenneman.

The painting shows a dazed-looking woman with a drink in front of her. The depiction of "low life" sparked controversy, but the debate over its merits introduced the notion of art for art's sake, Brenneman said.

Monet's portrait, "Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert," and another portrait, "Comtesse de Keller," by the academic artist Alexandre Cabanel, are displayed in the same room.

Showing the Monet and the Cabanel together is part of the philosophy behind the exhibit.

"You get to see the impressionists with their archenemies, with their predecessors, their successors," Brenneman said. "The idea of the Cabanel is to map the individual. What Monet does is to resist that urge. He shows only the profile. You know this is an individual, but just barely."

Another famous painting, Monet's "Gare Saint-Lazare," is "incredible for the almost abstract quality of the paint which he uses to create a sense of the movements, of the steam and the smoke that's rising," he said.

Also in the exhibition are paintings by Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Matisse, Georges Seurat and Henri-Edmond Cross and decorative work by Rene Lalique.

It closes with "Portrait of Madame M," by amateur painter Henri Rousseau, who was admired by some young avant-garde artists for his willingness to ignore the rules of perspective.

"They could feed off his work and bring into the world new subjects," Brenneman said. "Those artists were Matisse and Picasso."


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