A statement by French writer Guy de Maupassant might be the motto for the exhibition "Impressionists on the Seine," at The Phillips Collection here through Feb. 23: "My one absorbing passion for 10 years was the Seine. That lovely, calm, ever-changing, stinking river, full of glamour and filth! I loved it so I think, because it gave me a sense of life."
To celebrate the Phillips 75th anniversary as the first American museum of modern art, 60 Impressionist paintings - most created in the 1870s - portray the glory of life and leisure (without the filth) along the Seine River in Paris.
This decade marked the most intense collaboration between the French artists Monet, Renoir, Manet, Sisley, Pissarro, Caillebotte, and Morisot. They often painted side by side, setting up their easels at sailing regattas and bathing resorts. In the process, they developed and brought to a peak of virtuosity the revolutionary style that would be termed Impressionism.
The show reeks of recreation. No better cure for the winter blahs could possibly exist than to steep one's eyeballs in the jolly sociability of these lush lunches and serene strolls by the Seine. Under the influence of these paintings, even the most hyperkinetic museumgoer's gait slows to a stroll. You'll want to step right into the scenes that seem to guarantee paradise lost will be regained.
Of greatest interest is comparing the canvases of Renoir and Monet. Their 1869 paintings of an identical scene (La Grenouillre, a cafe and swimming spot) mark the full-blown appearance of the new painting style considered "insurrectionist" at the time. Impressionism's quick, loose brushstrokes, heightened palette and bright patches of color that record fleeting effects of light, and its interest in modern life all converge in these paintings of assurance and power.
Afterward, that old gang of theirs went separate ways. As financial success arrived in the 1880s, Monet came to concentrate almost exclusively on landscapes and ephemeral atmospheric effects. Renoir focused on the figure, rendered with more solidity in his high-society portraits. The others kept the Impressionist faith to greater and lesser degrees.
The impetus for this exhibition was to gather "Seinescapes" by Renoir's pals to surround The Phillips Collection's shining star, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-81). A more appealing painting could scarcely exist of a convivial meal on a balcony overlooking the Seine. The work marks a pinnacle of Renoir's Impressionism, as he unites 14 figures in this complex composition through gestures, glances, and highlights of white impasto.
The Seine is 500 miles long. You'll wish it flowed a few hundred more if it could produce more paintings like these. Even at 125 years' distance from the scenes, you can almost hear the ripple of laughter and feel the breeze on your face.