Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay Come to the De Young

For the second time in a week, I'm (almost) speechless - but this time, it's with awe. Here are a few quick impressions while I work on a longer piece. The installation is one of the best that I've seen and the lighting is superb. There's not a misplaced track light or a piece that you can't see because of the glare of light on glass. The first three rooms are full of the academic and salon painting of the time, which I didn't find that compelling except for a still life of a trout by Courbet. The show is very light on Manet - there are a couple of portraits, the Fifer and two exquisite, small still life pieces. I think that the bulk of the Manet pieces will come in the fall. There's a room of Monet's iconic masterpieces and pieces by Cezanne (you can never have to many Cezanne's)

When you enter the first room, you are facing Bouguereau's Venus, the epitome of 19th century academic painting. The piece takes up the entire wall and is a textbook example of 19th century attitudes toward women (carefully coy, eyes averted) and nudity (mythological references, therefore socially permissible). He's completely out of fashion yet I found the painting fun. It's a frothy, creamy, wedding cake of a painting, certainly beautifully painted with a glossy finish, satin skin tones and an eroticism that was fashionable in the time (look Ma, no pubic hair).

Bazille's painting of his family is far more stunning than any reproduction will show. It takes up almost all of one wall and the strong contrasts show Bazille's liking for the light of the South of France. The group is in the shade of a large tree, which accentuates the bright colors of the landscape and the sky. The light filtered by the foliage enhances the pale clothes, contrasting with the dark note of the jackets, a shawl or an apron.

Degas - what's enticing about this is his incredible draftsmanship. It's not a large piece and the perspective is flattened but that makes the graphic design stand out even more. I also had never thought of his color palate; here it's muted tans, blues and grays yet the piece is not drab or somber.

I have a confession to make. I've never liked this painting. I find it cold, dark and boring. But it's installed in a place of honor and it's certainly important in the history of art. I'm glad that it's showing but I wish that the Orsay had shipped some of Whistler's more colorful works.

more to come...
Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay opening at the De Young this Saturday, May 22nd.

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