By Iride Aparicio
Pictures courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  

“The Countess of Keller" (l873)
The Countess of Keller (l873)
oil  on canvas  by Alexandre Cabanel

The Fine Arts Musée d’ Orsay in Paris  has been involved with paintings from the “Impressionism” movement since its opening in l986,  so it is not surprising that the first of two exhibits on loan from the d’ Orsay being presented  at the  M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco during the Musée’s partial renovation,  is “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’ Orsay”  and “Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’ Orsay” which will open on September 25th  and will exhibit paintings from Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Rousseau.

Birth of Impressionism,”  now in progress at the de Young Museum until September 6 of 2010, may be described as the cultural event of this decade. It exhibits one hundred paintings through which  we can  see the actual works of the great French masters,  analyze their schools’  different styles,  observe their individual  approaches to painting and  learn, from their images painted on canvas, the  tumultuous history of France during  those years.  
An impressive  example of this historical period is the portrait  of  General  Juan Prim, October 8, l868, painted by Henri Regnault.  The  portrait is shocking  because both the General and his horse are  life-size, so the oil painting,  exhibited framed by a gold frame, is enormous. The portrait  is considered one of the most important paintings completed by Regnault during his tenure in Madrid during the liberal revolution of  that year.
A Brief History of Impressionism
The movement known as “impressionism” began in Paris among a group of fellow students: Camille Pissarro, Pier Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille and Claude Monet between the years 1809 and l864. Their common interest was the French painter Gustave Courbet (l819-l877) and the Barbizon painters; their common enemy, the orthodoxy of the Academy “Salon painters” who wanted to control their artistic productions.
The name of the movement, originated with  “Impression: Sunrise, l872.”  a painting by Monet representing  an orange sky  (painted with thick and long brush strokes) over a pale yellow river, painted with small blotches of paint  to emulate the waves. On the right side of the river bank, dark lines simulated trees, and next to the trees a dark blur gave one the impression of looking at buildings, at the distance, shrouded  by fog.  The only objects represented with realism in this painting, were two black rowboats floating on the water. Monet’s  painting was a sketch for a  picture. (It was unfinished) but he liked it enough to  include  it in one of his exhibits.  Its lack of “finish” inspired a sarcastic art critic to write: “what freedom, what ease in workmanship.”
And it was the “freedom” in Monet’s  brush strokes that inspired other painters, at a later date, to copy the “free new style” he had created.  Because the picture’s name was “Impression”  all the paintings using the style were called  “Impressionists.”

Birth of Impressionism” the exhibition, guides the visitor through the Paris Salon where the artists of those years got together to paint.  These young painters  had different personalities,  so they developed very different styles.

Birth of Venus The Bath The Dancing Lesson

The Birth Of Venus , painted by Adolphe-William Bouguereau in l879,  demonstrates the various techniques of the “Academic Paintings”: 1) Classical subject matter. (Venus is a Pagan Roman Goddess)  2) A nude woman.  3) Representation of the human figures with realism.  4) completely controlled brush work.

In The Bath (l867)   Alfred Stevens represents the bourgeois Parisian woman. We see her luxurious bathtub and the luxurious interior of her house. The opened book next to her, may have been painted to indicate that she is an intellectual, a woman who reads books.  Yet Stevens manages to capture her sensuality by placing two roses in her hand and her half-closed eyes may indicate that she was painted during an  intimate moment when she was sumerged in water lost in thought.

The Dancing Lesson was painted by Edgar Degas in l873.  Because the artist considered himself a “Realist” he painted all his subjects realistically. His favorite subjects were people in scenes that represented the contemporary life of Paris. He liked to paint young girls and women belonging to the entertainment world: the ballet, the cabarets, and the brothels. Degas devoted most of his later career to the portrayal of ballerinas at the opera.  In The Dancing Lesson  he managed to capture a very accurate portrait of Jules Perrot, the ballet  instructor, as well as the spontaneous gestures of the different girls..  

At the de Young,  the pictures  occupy  a corridor and eleven rooms.  Didactic Panels on the walls, provide a historical background of the times. In “The Terrrible Year: War and Civil War, l870-l871”, for instance, the poster informs the public that in July l870 powerful nationalist forces in Europe and the internal politics of France had pushed Napoleon III into a war with Prussia. That the war was disastrous for the French, and that on September the Germans laid siege to Paris. The city endured bombardment, famine and disease.

In his “The Siege of Paris l870-7l" an oil on canvas painted with almost photographic accuracy, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier envisions the Franco-Prussian war. His painting represent a battlefield under a dark smoky sky where a Prussian eagle, personifying famine, hovers overhead the soldiers like a vulture.  One can see soldiers fighting, in the background, and in the foreground wounded soldiers scattered all over.  At the center  of a picture, stands a large  woman next to an shredded  French flag.

Another interesting galleria is French Painters and Spanish Style which displays the pictures of the French painters who revived the l7th –century Spanish styles: Figural idealization, Clarity of form, Color, and a Fuller Technical and Emotional Expression. An example of this period is  "The Martyr Saint Sebastian" painted by Theodule Ribot. The painting is Spanish,  in subject and style..

For the lovers of  the Avant-Garde,  “Birth of Impressionism”  have pictures of  Edouard  Manet who scandalized the XlX Century Paris with his aggressive innovations.
Other impressionists artists represented in the exhibition are Cesanne, Pissarro, Whistler, Renoir and Degas to name a few.  Because this is a touring exhibition the chance for us to see these masterpieces in person, is limited.  Once the pictures leave the city they will be  returned to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Musée d’ Orsay

The History of The Musée d’ Orsay (Taken from Alison Anderson’s French translation)

Located on a stretch of the River Seine bank, the Parisian museum  was named after Charles Boucher, signeur d’ Orsay, Councillor of the Parliament and Provost of the Paris merchants.  In l704,  King Louis XIV asked Boucher to build a stone work quay next to a tree garden belonging  to Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navare, the former wife of Henri IV, with the purpose to improve the king’s view of the site.

By the  XVIII century, with the construction of prestigious hotels and the stables for the Royal Coaches located in the Hotel d’ Egmont, the site acquired  an aristocratic character, but during the French Revolution, the coach houses got transformed into military  barracks.

In l810,  Napoleon decided to build the Palais du Quai d’Orsay for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the barracks were.  The Neo-Cassic building was built by Jacques Lacornee after the death of his teacher Jacques Charles Bonnard.  The building was destroyed by fire in l871.

In anticipation of the Exposition Universelle (The fifth world’s fair in Paris) a train station,  The Gare d’ Orsay was built for passengers’ traffic. The following year the train company bought the ruins of the Palais d’Orsay and the adjoining barracks. To keep the style of the surrounding buildings, the architects, Victor Laloux, Lucien Marque y Henry Jean Emile Benard (who in l899 would win the international competition for his architectural plans to  Berkeley’s building of the University of California) worked on the design. Laloux design was chosen on April l898 and the new building was inaugurated on July 14, 1900.

The Gare d’ Orsay was busy for more than 40 years  but little by little and after it lost its primary function its building was put to other uses. It was going to be torn down, but in l973 President Georges Pompidou made the official decision to convert the Gare d’ Orsay into a museum.  The contract was awarded to a team of engineers: Pierre colhoc, Renaud Bardon  and Jean Paul Philippon.  The art collection to be housed in the museum extended from paintings from l848 to paintings of l914.  President Francois Mitterrand inaugurated the Musee d’ Orsay on December 1, l986.