Forever de Young: Impressions of a San Francisco Impressionist Exhibition

"I don't really care for the Impressionists," my luncheon companion told me, in world-weary tones, after my visit to the Impressionists on the Water exhibition at San Francisco's de Young Museum's Legion of Honor. She added, disdainfully, "They're too bourgeois."

Irony of ironies: today, 150 years after appearing on the scene, the Impressionists, perhaps art's greatest rebel force, have become what they despised. Dorm room kitsch. Visual Muzak.

Pierre-Auguste and Claude, say it ain't so.

Today, Impressionist painting is a little like Beethoven: even people who aren't aficionados recognize the name, but few understand what a revolutionary force the name represents. In the mid-19th century Parisian art world, the only way you made serious coin as a painter was to have your work accepted by the Salon, the exhibition that was the arbiter of taste for the haut monde, or upper class of Paris. Painting your way into the Salon required surrendering your individualism the moment you picked up your brush. The requirements were severe. Classical landscapes. Lifelike portraits of families and dogs. But in order to sell your work, as an artist, you had to sell your soul. You were obliged to, well, color within the lines.

The official art of mid-19th century France lacked elan.

It lacked panache.

It was boring.

It was safe.

And then a crew of artists/revolutionaries asked some intriguing questions: Why do we have to paint paintings that look like other paintings? Why can't we instead paint the way light hits subjects in the real world and not just in the ateliers of tradition-minded (read: sell-out) artists?

And so a new movement was born. These artists became obsessed with painting light. They wanted to capture the way light touched objects. Water. Haystacks. Cathedrals. Flowers. Ballerinas. They mostly tended toward inanimate objects because they mostly couldn't afford models. Haystacks didn't eat anything; reclining nudes did.

But no nudes (or few nudes) was good nudes for this crew. Claude Monet went to London in 1872 and painted a picture that gave its name to the movement. Impression: Sunrise captured the ways light struck Parliament and the River Thames. And then he and his fellow Impressionists joined together to paint light and make history.

Impressionism, today's safe choice for your guest bathroom or the freshman dorm, outraged the French. Its creators were denied admission to the Salon, thus guaranteeing them potential artistic success but actual financial failure. The Impressionists painted gamely on, relying on a few friendly collectors and admirers to keep them in brushes and brioches.

Today, a list of these starving artists reads like a hall of fame of French art. Claude Monet. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Gustave Caillebotte. Mary Cassatt. Camille Pissarro. Paul Cezanne. Alfred Sisley. And then the second generation, the Pointillists, who tried to reduce broad-stroke color to thousands of points of light, a century before George H.W. Bush thought of the phrase. Most notably, Georges Seurat. Paul Signac.

Eventually, the walls of the Salon came tumbling down and the Impressionists found a market for their (then) outrageous work. Today, their art survives in museums and private collections around the world, a testament to the fact that if you hang in there long enough, you, too, can become an incredibly expensive, and attractive, cliché.

If you've only seen reproductions of Impressionist art, in the loo or your kid's dorm suite at UC-Whatever, it's time to visit the Legion of Honor and admire these great works for yourself. The show, which features 86 paintings and drawings, and a few actual boats thrown in for good measure, offers only about half a dozen masterworks, but those alone are worth the trip.

You can also check out the Rodin gallery upstairs and the stupendous views of the Golden Gate from the Legion of Honor's grounds. So if you're going to San Francisco, visit this lovely array of works whose creators went through struggles that we can hardly imagine. And if by some chance you can construct a time machine, go back to the year 1872 and take a long position in Renoir's and Monet's work, back when you could buy their work for a cup of café au lait. Your heirs and assigns will thank you.

Impressionists on the Water, through October 13. Legion of Honor, deYoung Museum, San Francisco.