I recently had the pleasure of viewing the Impressionist show running at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and like many a guest found myself delightfully overwhelmed with the wealth of work that was contained within it. There are paintings and various media by Monet, Renoir, Signac, Pissarro and a host of others and the quality of the included selections is quite high.
The theme of the show is “on the water”, which coincides with the America’s Cup race that annually takes place in San Francisco. Besides the range of styles and artists working in this theme, there were also writings, graphic works and even a pair of Gustave le Gray albumen prints from the 19th century which served as a fitting counterpoint to the subjectivity imbued in the Impressionists recording of similar motifs. It should be noted that le Gray is famous for his combination prints that surpassed the technical limitations of wet-plate collodion photography and allowed him to dramatize and romanticize his well-known seascapes. There was a large survey of painting that included the giants of the movement and on the occasion of my visit the Renoir’s and Pissarro’s occupied the most popular and congested segments of the galleries. Nevertheless this gave me the opportunity to see some of the Paul Signac’s up close and while I had seen some of his and Seurat’s Pointillist works before at the Musée D’Orsay previously, this viewing seemed to pack more of a wallop in the pictures’ technical virtuosity and aesthetic appeal. I also was able to see a couple of Emile Vuillard canvases that glowed in their play of complimentary color contrasts but also reminded myself of my cabin and its environs on the Russian River in Sonoma County.
Another interesting observation for the museum-goer is the noticeable influence of Impressionist pictorial devices on future “realist” painters and how they would come to define highlights and shadows in oil. I have always loved the work of Edward Hopper, whose themes of loneliness and aloneness display an existential current of American life in the first half of the 20th century. One of the aspects of a Hopper painting of a pastoral or cityscape that helps crystallize his beautiful sense of light is his application of warm hues to the highlights and then the corresponding/complimentary cool tone hues to the shadows. This development might not sound all that revolutionary in and of itself but it was truly the Impressionists that initiated this effect and perfected it as a means of creating the often dazzling displays of color and brilliant light that are so famous in their works. Even with a good deal of white mixed into the colored pigments (thus lessening the saturation and creating more of a high-key, pastel palette) these contrasts of warm and cool still energize the imagery in a way that painters had not achieved before. For myself it is the landscape artist’s equivalent to how Leonardo invented “sfumato” and changed the course of Renaissance painting with his famous dissolving contours and thus less cut-out and immovable figures.
It is rare for a show of this kind, one which highlights the great masters or a popular Modernist movement, to not seem trite, cliché or overly broad in its appeal but this exhibition was wonderful. I would recommend that you be sure to catch this show before its closing this coming October.
Gustave Caillebotte, Regatta at Argentuil-1893