`THE grand tradition is lost and the new one is not yet created.'' The poet and critic Baudelaire described mid-19th-century France this way - just before the period documented in the ``Origins of Impressionism'' exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nearly 200 paintings by more than 30 artists, including Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, illustrate this transitional stage in French art. In the decade from 1859 to 1870, academic history painting had grown fussy and arid, just before full-blown Impressionism unleashed its torrents of sun and color.
Strangely, for an exhibition of painters associated with light-flooded canvases, the 11 Metropolitan galleries are as dim as a subterranean tunnel. For the most part, the light remains around the corner, in the Met's permanent 19th-century galleries, where mature Impressionist masterpieces are displayed in all their radiance.
This exhibit traces the roots of Impressionism, and substantial dirt clings to those roots. It's not just the earth tones of the Barbizon School and terrestrial realism of Courbet, important precursors of Impressionism. It's the fact that these selections are mediocre examples of work by artists like Corot, Daubigny, Rousseau, and Courbet.
Nevertheless, as a didactic exercise, the show makes its point. The initial galleries of Salon paintings (formulaic scenes glorifying mythological or historical events in excruciatingly perfect detail) convince us that Neoclassicism had reached a dead end. Jean Leon Gme's ``King Candaules'' (1859) represents everything the nascent movement detested. Gme's standing nude is as static as a Greek statue; his king's profile could have been copied from an urn. Tedious, pompous, and antiquarian, official art was a ripe target for rebels.
The loudest blast on the trumpet of revolution was sounded by an unlikely anarchist, Manet, an aristocrat in a top hat who longed for nothing more than public acceptance. Art historians date the debut of modern painting from 1863, when Manet's ``Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe'' (a version of which is shown at the Met) attracted squawks of derision at the Salon des Refuses. ``Apostle of the ugly and repulsive'' was one of the milder epithets thrown at him.
Manet's offense was to reject the dogma that prevailed since the Renaissance. He overturned the concept of painting as a window on three-dimensional reality, simulating through perspective, shading, and invisible brush strokes a world beyond the picture plane. Manet's bold light-dark contrasts announced that a painting is unabashedly a collection of lines, colors, and shapes on canvas, as in ``The Fifer'' (1866). The boy should be playing a tuba to match the impact of this work. ``Manet was a whole new era of painting,'' Renoir said.
The frank realism of Manet's nudes and their sheer modernity hit the vein that Impressionists would mine. Art would henceforth present a subjective snapshot of current life or nature, without narration or idealization - and without disguising the hand of the maker.
Not until 1874, however, did the new movement get its name. A critic coined the term based on Monet's ``Impression: Sunrise'' as a derogatory slur on the ``unfinished'' nature of the work. ``Impression'' usually denoted a rapid sketch, which, in this case, best represented fleeting qualities of light.
The 1874 exhibit of the new art was deemed so seditious that one newspaper recounted how a viewer, driven insane by it, dashed from the hall to bite innocent bystanders.
Before Manet's break with the past, Gustave Courbet had laid the groundwork when he shocked the establishment with scenes of ordinary peasants on an epic scale. Courbet is best represented in the exhibit by his superb ``Oak of Vercingetorix'' (1864). Wielding a palette knife like a mason's trowel, the artist dabbed thick pigment until it looked as tactile as bark.
Another breakthrough painting shown is by Monet. He followed on the heels of the Barbizon painters and his mentor Eugene Boudin, who painted outdoors to capture the primal impact of a scene but completed the work indoors.
With ``Women in the Garden'' (1866-67), Monet executed a work completely en plein air. His goal: to record immediate sensory perceptions of light and shadow. Like Renoir, Monet placed dabs of pure color side by side to indicate the scintillation of nature. When the sun went behind a cloud, he threw down his paintbrush and refused to paint.
The four 1869 canvases that Monet and Renoir executed side by side at a riverside resort, La Grenouillere, use broken brush strokes to convey flickering reflections on water. These works are a virtual manifesto proclaiming, ``Out with authority, in with spontaneity!''
A highlight of the show is Renoir's portrait of ``Romaine Lacaux'' (1864).
The artist, who began as a decorator of porcelain, paints the little girl's skin with the clarity and delicacy of Limoges, leaving her hands and blouse a blur of summary strokes.
Degas's ``A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers'' (1865) hints at the off-kilter, candid-camera style he later mastered.
Most of the Cezanne paintings on display, except the wonderful still life ``The Black Clock'' (1870), show why even his fellow avant-garde artists considered him a crude barbarian. His painting ``The Banquet'' (1870), with its blobby bodies and lurid colors, is like no other painting in history. The clumsy aggression of this early work - before he developed his supreme Post-Impressionism style at Mont Sainte-Victoire - makes one grateful Cezanne lived a long life.
French painting in the 1860s stood on the threshold of a new era of art. Here we see the tentative steps that would produce soaring leaps in pure color and light.
* ``Origins of Impressionism'' is at the Met through Jan. 8, 1995.