About 450,000 persons will have seen “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886" by the time it closes next month at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. And that figure does not include the thousands who attended the premiere at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition in San Francisco is a sellout--and so it should be, for it is a remarkable example of the way art can be combined to educate, entertain and inspire.
The exhibit re-creates the sense of discovery that attended the first showings of the works of those revolutionary, imaginative, fecund painters. That and the very dimension of the assemblage make the show unique. Charles S. Moffett, then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, now curator-in-charge at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, conceived the idea more than a decade ago as he completed detective work tracing 1,754 works of art that hung in Paris in the eight sensational first exhibits of the painters who came to be known as the impressionists. He managed to reassemble 150 of those works from 94 collections in seven nations just in time to mark the centennial of the eighth of the original exhibitions.
Moffett inevitably faced disappointments. The Chicago Art Institute was generous, but understandably drew the line at Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"--a painting that bowled over spectators at the eighth impressionist show and that remains a centerpiece of the great Chicago collection. Seurat’s painstaking pointillism was a culmination of impressionist experimentation with communicating color and light to the human retina. But the Chicago institute pledged never to lend it again after its loss was narrowly averted in a fire while it was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
There are two particularly welcome aspects of the exhibition. Each painting is identified with a label large enough to be read from the far side of the always-crowded galleries. And the walls are adorned with some of the critical comments that marked the first showings to a world un-accustomed to such innovation and experimentation. The comments are not all favorable, by any means. Cezanne’s landscapes were compared to “unscraped palettes,” the delicate filtered sunlight of Renoir to “grease stains,” the countrysides of Monet to an “anarchic mess.” The fallibility of those critics of a century ago is instructive to all of us who sit in judgment, particularly in negative judgment of what is new and unfamiliar.
The exhibit is a splendid successor to the view of the French countryside through impressionist and post-impressionist eyes mounted two years ago by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the Olympic Arts Festival. And it serves to whet our appetite for the June 26 opening at the County Museum of 40 impressionist and early-modern paintings from museums in Moscow and Leningrad that will include seven impressionist canvases long out of view in the West.