Recalling Impressionism's Roots

An exhibition at Paris's Grand Palais chronicles the emergence of a new way of painting

ON the surface, 1859 was not a monumental year in the art world. ``No explosion. No unknown genius,'' wrote Charles Baudelaire of the Paris salon that year.

But behind the scenes a new world was bubbling, and a new way of painting that would be called Impressionism was beginning to take shape. Even as the salon's crusty jury turned away Edouard Manet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler in favor of more academic painters, an unknown named Claude Monet arrived in Paris, and a young man named Pierre-Auguste Renoir was working in an awning shop to fill his stomach and keep himself alive so he could paint.

Manet, Monet, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne: Over the following 10 years they would slough off the convention of their era to revitalize painting and give the world a new picture of itself.

The decade from 1859 to 1869 is explored in a fascinating exposition currently running at Paris's Grand Palais through Aug. 8. By bringing together the dozen young artists who most strongly influenced the emergence of Impressionism, the show provides an intimate picture of the conscious struggle the painters confronted to bring about a new way of painting. That they knew they were on to something different hardly seems open to doubt: They called themselves the new painters, reviewed and critiqued one another's work, and unfolded their easels side-by-side in suburban Paris woods and on Channel beaches.

What the show also accomplishes is a displacement of the advent of Impressionism from the mid-1870s to the preceding decade.

Monet's 1865 painting of a tree, ``The Bodmer Oak,'' suggests the Monet-to-come in the play of sun and shade on the forest floor. But by the end of the decade, with Monet's ``Women in the Garden'' or Renoir's ``Grenouillere,'' picturing a favorite bathing spot along the Seine, the new painting these artists sought is clearly born.

The exposition, which is co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will move in September, tells this story through 183 paintings arranged principally by subject matter - portraits, historic painting, the nude, still lifes, scenes of contemporary living.

The thematic organization allows the viewer to see clearly how these painters were determined to lead what they called ``a grand movement of artistic renovation.'' Refusing the stale methods of conventional historic painting, for example, they didn't just leave this genre by the wayside but attempted to give it new life.

But where they stood out was in their attention to the newly developing leisure interests of their time. Less than a century after the American Declaration of Independence had guaranteed the pursuit of happiness, Baudelaire declared, ``The artist must seek his inspiration in the spectacle of modern life'' - and they did. Garden scenes, walks along the boulevards, afternoons in open-air cafes were their new subjects, as were the Sunday country picnics and visits to the beach that newly opened train lines suddenly brought closer to Paris.

The point of this show seems not so much to heighten appreciation of Impressionism itself, but to chronicle the exuberant and very human struggles its practitioners experienced as they developed a new vision of art.

Just as the Impressionists put new life in painting, this exposition gives a new humanity to a group of towering artists whose works the world already loves.

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