Claude Monet Exhibit Brings Francophiles to De Young Museum En Masse

Photo: Get that Monet. Unless you've been living under a watercolor rock, you've seen a Monet. Still, the De Young keeps the classics fresh.
The Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. Claude Monet. MusEe D’Orsay/HervE Lewandowski/Courtesy
Get that Monet. Unless you've been living under a watercolor rock, you've seen a Monet. Still, the De Young keeps the classics fresh.

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What is it about France? Look at the way French styles and patterns inspire everything from high fashion to cheesy coasters at Crate & Barrel, not to mention the inordinate number of Facebook profile pictures that feature the Eiffel Tower in the background. It seems like America has a crush on France - the culture of course, not the people (remember Freedom Fries?). So for San Francisco's De Young Museum, decorating its walls with paintings from Paris' prized Musee d'Orsay is like hitting the jackpot.

After all, few artists are as bankable as Claude Monet, whose very surname suggests genius, beauty, innovation and lots of pretty flowers. Despite a conspicuous lack of lily pads, the new exhibit, entitled "Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay," features some of his most popular works.

The exhibit was certainly crowded when I visited (it was a Sunday), but this seemed due as much to space as popularity. Anyone who's had the fortune to visit the Musee d'Orsay will notice the De Young's comparative lack of square footage and height. The Musee d'Orsay, housed in what was originally a train station, is one of the biggest and most impressive art museums in the world - so comparison isn't really fair.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to wonder why the people who raised $190 million for the new De Young, completed in 2005, didn't ask the architects to make the ceilings a little higher. In light of such limitations, the planners of "Birth of Impressionism" didn't really help the viewer out. Instead of being a conventional white, which gives any room a more open feel, the gallery walls are crimson and gray.

Also distracting, and pretty cheesy, are the 360-degree sofas, made of red velvet and gold trim, that give visitors a place to relax while eyeing the art. It's as if the designers took their cues from a Versailles-themed pillow at Cost Plus.

But these Impressionist works could be housed in a barn, and still, their brilliance would be obvious. The most striking thing, especially in the paintings of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, is the almost unfathomable range of colors used to capture everyday scenes. In person, Monet's "La Gare Saint-Lazare" has hundreds of distinct shades, embroiled deep in the smoky interior of a Parisian train station.

The Impressionists didn't hide their brushstrokes (see Renoir's "La Seine a Champrosay") - instead, each distinctive stroke blends together, creating images that are evocative but rarely anatomically precise. A picture that the De Young's curatorial comment cards don't paint to satisfaction is that this delightful crudeness is what made the original Impressionists such rebels.

A latter-19th century French artist's critical and popular success hinged largely on acceptance to the Académie des Beaux-Arts' Salon de Paris, an annual gallery displaying works by the reigning artistic in-crowd. The landscapes and commoners so beloved by the Impressionists contrasted sharply with the typical salon painting, which depicted historical scenes and figures.

Monet, Sisley, Renoir: Their works were roundly rejected at those first salons, and yet here they are over a century later, admired across the world.

These painters found inspiration in the ordinary scenes of life - the cow pastures, the train stations, the crowds of people (like those packed into a busy museum) that we likely take for granted, or even find annoying. Perhaps this beautification of quotidian life is why these paintings resonate so strongly, and why the crowds remain so large.


Put your Monet where your mouth is with Nick at [email protected]

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