The hundred pictures from the Musée d’Orsay in the stunning ‘Birth of Impressionism’ exhibition at the de Young museum in San Francisco were painted during the tumultuous 1860s and 1870s. At that time the Impressionists rejected the traditional content and technique of the highly varnished academic pictures in the official Paris Salons and portrayed a radically new way of perceiving reality. The lifeless nude figures in the traditional mythological, classical and historical works looked like frozen statues and offered a titillating erotic appeal.

Only one Salon painting, a group portrait of Breton peasants by Degas’ friend Jean-François Raffaëlli, introduces a note of grim realism. Seated on cane chairs in an austere interior and in front of a cracked, blank wall, the elderly parents – their weathered faces, gnarled hands and stooped shoulders worn down by a lifetime of hard labour – stare at the viewer with hopeless resignation. The younger couple, destined for the same fate, are a ruddy-faced woman, knitting and painted in profile, and a man standing, hand on hip, whose figure is sharply cut in half. It seems that, in this oppressive life, he cannot be a whole man. Only the delicate embroidery on the blue shawl of the younger woman suggests a touch of brightness in their wretched lives.

It is as hard to imagine the startling initial impact of the bursts of light and colour in the now familiar Impressionist masterpieces as it is to remember the hatred and disgust the lovely pictures once aroused. These plein-air painters, the greatest concentration of artistic genius since Renaissance Florence, left the narrow confines of the studio and plunged into the natural world. They shocked conservative taste by capturing temporal and atmospheric sensations, and conveying with broken brushwork the transitory effects of dancing light and movement. In a burst of joyous life they released the fountains of pleasure in the sunlit gardens of the west. Their revolt against the rear-guard was condemned by most critics, but championed by their brilliant literary comrades: Charles Baudelaire and Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. It is odd that the voluminous John Ruskin, who adored the Impressionists’ hero J. M. W. Turner and lived until 1900, never wrote a word about his French contemporaries.

The lesser-known but charming and appealing Berthe Morisot is represented by her best painting, The Cradle (1872), which portrays her sister Edma with her newborn baby. The beautiful mother, seated in profile, wears a black striped dress with black choker, frilly cuffs and a deep ruffled neckline. She rests one hand reflectively on her chin and the other protectively on the cradle, echoing the pose of the blurry-faced infant. As she gazes down at the cradle, the baby sleeps peacefully under a high-coned, diaphanous white net, trimmed with pink ribbons. The painting idealises motherhood, yet also suggests maternal concern. Morisot’s restrained yet suggestive mother may be thinking of the pain she endured to give birth to the baby and wondering whether she will survive to have a happy life.

Édouard Manet’s The Escape of Rochefort (c.1881) is both an imaginative depiction of a contemporary event and a swirling seascape. After the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, Henri de Rochefort, a déclassé aristocrat and politician, became a vitriolic critic of the restored Versailles government. Arrested for his damaging newspaper articles, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the French penal colony on New Caledonia. In March 1874 Rochefort and five other prisoners escaped from the South Pacific island. After contacting the captain of an Australian ship, they were picked up by another convict in a stolen boat and taken to Newcastle, north of Sydney. When Rochefort was amnestied and returned to France in 1880, Manet wrote, ‘I saw Rochefort yesterday – they used a whaling dinghy for their boat – the colour was dark grey – six people – two oars’.

The Escape of Rochefort shows the prisoners rowing to freedom in the whaleboat. The bushy-haired and mustachioed Rochefort, looking back toward the viewer, confidently holds the tiller and steers the boat to safety. In the distance, the high-masted Australian ship, under a heavy, grey-black sky, awaits their arrival; in the foreground, the choppy sea behind the boat is streaked with jagged yellow. The turbulent sea behind them symbolises the past, the distant calm foreshadows the promising future. Jan Porcellis’ Estuary Ships in a Strong Wind (late 1620s, Rotterdam: Boymans Museum), with its manned whaleboat and prominent figure at the tiller – facing the viewer – was a clear model for Manet’s painting.

Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Boy with a Cat (1868) is a strange, uncharacteristically sexy picture, quite unlike his pneumatic female nudes. The naked, androgynous adolescent stands with his back to the spectator and gracefully turns his head in a three-quarter view. He clasps his hands in a circle around the grey-black, whitefaced cat, touching his face to its head, while the cat reciprocates by circling its paw and tail around the boy’s left arm. There is a fine contrast between the naked flesh and the soft fur, which are set against the velvety green cloth beneath the cat and the swirling, brocaded drapery that sweeps down from the table to the carpeted floor. The pussy is clearly a sensual substitute as the boy, narcissistically aware of his allure, awakens into full sexual awareness.

Renoir’s The Swing (1876) is a modern version of Jean Honoré Fragonard’s great painting The Swing (1767, Wallace Collection, London). In Fragonard a lavishly dressed beauty rises high above her recumbent but riveted lover, kicking off her pink satin shoe and ecstatically revealing her white stockings and ruffled underwear. In Renoir’s more modest variant, a woman in a white and blue-ribboned dress stands on a low static swing and innocently chats with two straw-hatted men as a child (her child?) observes them. The tour de force of this decorous tableau is the dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves and branches of the tranquil forest.

Edgar Degas is represented by three masterpieces. The Pedicure, painted in New Orleans in 1873, is a characteristic example of Impressionist depictions of ordinary life. Yet it achieves its power from the strange contrast between the ostensible and the covert subject: a cosmetic procedure and a surgical operation. The scene is all the more sombre for taking place in a cosy domestic setting and on a flowery white sofa, on which the subject has discarded her dress. The body of the pubescent girl is wrapped and mummified like a patient or a corpse in a huge white winding sheet that flows onto the floor. Her eyes are closed, she looks semiconscious, and her stiff, cadaverous leg extends from under the sheet and rests on the straight chair. The menacing pedicurist, dressed in black, attentively bends his shiny dome over her. Concentrating on the vulnerably exposed leg and foot of the comatose girl, the old man seems prepared to cut off her toe with his glittering instrument and throw the body part into the shallow circular tub. Their strange isolated intimacy and the pathological theme give the painting extraordinary tension and interest.

In Racehorses Before the Stands (1866-68), seven horses and jockeys, casting jagged shadows that seem to pursue them on the sandy track, are lined up from the right to the centre of the painting, descending in size to indicate the sharp perspective. At the end of the line a jockey, standing in his stirrups, tries to control a frisky black horse with widely spread legs. This wild movement contrasts with the placid stillness of the huge brown horse and jockey, facing away from the viewer and standing on the left, near the white rail on the side of the track. Beneath the tan pavilion a crowd, with many long-skirted ladies under bright umbrellas, strolls and chats while waiting for the race to begin. The roofs of a few houses and two tall smokestacks appear in the background, under a pale purplish sky and behind a cluster of trees. Both jockeys and spectators convey a mood of lively and energetic anticipation.

The Dancing Lesson (1873-76), portraying twenty ballerinas from the Paris opera who surround the ballet master in three different groups, is even more complex than Racehorses. In the left foreground three girls, with huge coloured bows on their backs (and a lapdog and watering can at their feet) amuse themselves while waiting to perform. One holds a fan, another adjusts an earring, a third lazily scratches her back. In front of a high palatial doorway three other girls – with pink slippers, black chokers and tightly drawn hair – dance before their grey-haired teacher. His long vertical stick and rigid stance, like the natural postures of the girls who are resting, contrast with the exquisitely mannered arabesques in the balletic performance. In the right background the rest of the dancers and a few attentive mothers are seated on benches while awaiting their crucial appearance. Degas looked at his subjects in an idiosyncratic way and painted ballerinas not only on stage, but also behind the scenes: in the foyer and the wings, the dressing quarters and rehearsal room.

Two of Claude Monet’s urban pictures are structured by a penetrating triangular shape, surrounded by high buildings, which disappears into the distance. One triangle is formed by the roof of a train station, the other by the far end of a crowded street. The locomotive puffing blue clouds of smoke and charging into the terminus in La Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) recalls – as coal and steel vaporise the forms of the landscape – Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844). The horizontal grids of the protective glass-and-iron roof cross over the vertical tracks, and the vague figures of the passengers on the platform await the next train that will carry them through the modern world.

In Rue Montorgueil, Paris (1878) hundreds of vibrating tricolore French flags, seen from a high vantage point and extending from the tall residential buildings that line the street, celebrate the triumphant conclusion of the 1878 Exposition Universelle, or world’s fair. Though the sky is blue and the atmosphere joyous, the teeming black crowd squashed between the buildings of the modern city is reduced to a mass of ant-like figures who have lost their individual identity.

Monet, always willing to endure severe climates and extreme hardships to capture the violence of winter storms, was spotted by an incredulous contemporary while working outdoors during a Siberian winter: ‘It was cold enough to split rocks. We glimpsed a little heater, then an easel, then a gentleman swathed in three overcoats, with gloved hands, his face half-frozen. It was M. Monet studying an aspect of the snow’. Monet’s The Magpie (1868-69) was surely inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s The Magpie on the Gallows (1568, Darmstadt, Hessisches Museum), in which the very same bird rests rather incongruously on a wooden crossbar in a mournful landscape. In Monet’s picture (shifting from city to country) the twisted, ice-laden tree branches, between the snow-covered houses and fence, reach toward the lonely green-and-black bird and seem about to break off and crash into the silence. The fence posts, indistinct in the snow, cast clearer shadows on the purplish snow. The background is all Arctic desolation, and the threatened magpie has nothing at all to steal or to eat. Monet portrays, through a veil brightly, the phantasmagoria of snow and hazy sky, the evanescent tones and silvery light.

The short lively essays by nine different authors in the exhibition catalogue, intended for an educated rather than a scholarly audience, tend to emphasise the subjects and techniques in these pictures of everyday life. But there is also significant content and meaning in the paintings of Morisot, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Monet, who often enhance their themes by alluding to great works of art by Porcellis, Fragonard, Turner and Bruegel. One could say of this superb exhibition, as John Dryden said of Chaucer, ‘Here is God’s plenty’.

Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Guy Cogeval et al Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2010. Cloth $55; paper $35.

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