Nearly every inch of her milky-white flesh is on display in the painting, which is almost 10 feet tall. William-Adolphe Bouguereau's The Birth of Venus features three other nude women, a host of unclothed men, and enough cherubs to fill a large maternity ward. In the 1870s, this is what idealized beauty looked like in France — at least among the upper classes, who rewarded the artist and the artwork with the highest possible accolades. Other French artists had nothing but contempt for Bouguereau and his "academically pretty" portraits, saying they were slaves to the past — to old themes of history and mythology, to a style of painting that was much too literal. "J'emmerde Bouguereau," Paul Cézanne is reported to have said, using an epithet that is often accompanied by a middle finger.
Both Bouguereau and Cézanne are featured in "Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay," but it's Birth of Venus — an anti-Impressionistic Amazon — that is put under lights by the exhibit's entranceway, to stun visitors with context. Bouguereau embodies the transition from one artistic era to another. Instead of yesteryear, Impressionism looked to current events and everyday life — including people from the lower classes. Field workers with calloused hands, prostitutes with unusual faces, cafe dwellers with alcohol: All of them were now worthy of an artist's gaze. And instead of clean and precise paintings, Claude Monet and other Impressionists created blurred distillations — outlines of shapes not yet fully formed, painted with brush strokes that were obvious to the viewer. Monet said he mostly painted "impressions" of real subjects, not Bouguereau-style facsimiles.
Monet and his fellow Impressionists were at war with tradition. That's what's on the walls of the de Young Museum — an overview of a large cultural skirmish that was centered on Paris but ultimately had repercussions around the world, including in the United States. In fact, one of the most prominent Impressionists in 1870s Paris was an American, Mary Cassatt, who helped subvert the accepted way of painting women. Her Woman in Black at the Opera (1877-1878) profiles a conservatively dressed operagoer who, from her upper-tier balcony seat, scans ahead with her glasses, oblivious to the older man who is eyeing her with binoculars of his own. There's nothing come-hither about Cassatt's female arts patron, who is doing what she feels like, unaccompanied by a man. Cassatt frequently painted women and girls by themselves, or with other women and girls, as did Impressionism's other prominent female artist, Berthe Morisot, who is represented at the de Young with The Cradle (1872), a portrait of a young woman and her newborn. Looking at her sleeping child, the mother seems contemplative, even a little forlorn — which was anathema to the historic view of motherhood as a coveted, saintly practice.
The paintings, on loan from Paris' Musée d'Orsay (whose in-depth Impressionist collection is unparalleled), are a reminder of one of Impressionism's dictums: Women don't have to be depicted as happy, naked, or seductive. Of course, the movement had no formal rules, and Impressionists created their share of happy, naked, or seductive figures. But they were often inspired by ordinary settings, and painted with unusual colors or light schemes — a visual aesthetic that also rebelled against tradition. In The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte's 1875 depiction of three shirtless laborers at work on a hardwood floor, sunlight waxes the men's backs as caressingly as it does the newly shaved boards. An open bottle of wine contrasts with the workers' bent bodies. Rejected by the Salon de Paris, the painting found a home at the Impressionists' rival exhibit, but Caillebotte is more a Realist painter than a full-fledged Impressionist — someone who identified with the Impressionist mission and, with family wealth, supported its cause.
"Birth of Impressionism" makes clear that the label was a flexible one that overlapped with other movements (including Realism and Pointillism) and incorporated a host of French and non-French artists who aren't thought of as strict Impressionists. Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Edouard Manet are all included in the de Young exhibit. Whistler's Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (better known as Whistler's Mother) occupies a prominent spot. When I stood with a crowd in front of it, I overheard four friends debating whether the portrait said more about Whistler's relationship with his elderly mother (who had moved in with him) than it did about the story of Impressionism. In the same room, I overheard two men discussing Renoir's The Swing. The sumptuously colored painting shows a young woman holding the ropes of a swing as she glances away from a nearby person, possibly her paramour. "She's looking at some other guy," joked one of the men, causing his friend to laugh.
These paintings have always prompted animated, personal interpretations, starting with the Paris aristocracy, who called them vulgar and tried to snuff them out. If there's an ironic subtext of "Birth of Impressionism" and its sister exhibit at the Legion of Honor, "Impressionist Paris: City of Light," it's that many of the outcasts lumped together under Impressionism became aristocrats themselves. The French painter Jean-François Raffaëlli, for example, barely made a living in the 1870s, but his street panoramas of ordinary Paris strollers found a market in the Impressionist era and he became wealthy and important in his lifetime, according to curator James A. Ganz. Raffaëlli's work is one of the many surprises at "Impressionist Paris," which also spotlights Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Renoir, and Cézanne, alongside photographs of 19th-century Paris. Like "Birth of Impressionism," the exhibit is a requirement for anyone with even a passing interest in the movement.
Crowds for "Birth of Impressionism" (which opened May 22) are treating it like the blockbuster it is. The most popular paintings are drawing hordes of art-struck spectators, who are risking expulsion by taking photographs. Museum security staff, one guard told me, have caught many offending visitors and asked them to delete images of their favorite masterpieces. The frenzy over Impressionism will never abate. In these paintings are the ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and féminisme that struggled to anchor French society more than a century ago.
The exhibit succeeds by showing us Impressionism's full timeline and by reminding us that the artists were divided, even among themselves. That, I'm sure, was the curators' intent. Without the timeline and history lesson, "Impressionism" becomes a simplistic marketing slogan. Without the context, The Swing and Whistler's Mother become merely some other pretty pictures to admire and move away from.