Light on the Water

by Sura Wood
Wednesday Jun 12, 2013

As diverting as a day at the beach and as light as a summer breeze, "Impressionists on the Water," the California Palace of the Legion of Honor's new summertime exhibition featuring works by Seurat, Signac, Monet, Caillebotte, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro and the other usual suspects, is as delightful as it is wafer-thin.

Its premise - that a number of these artists had connections to the water and/or participated in sailing, pleasure boating and yacht racing, and that those activities opened up opportunities to explore their artistic preoccupations with light and color - is contrived. But let's face it: tourists and local visitors will take their friends, flock to the museum and have a pleasurable experience, no matter what the critics say. There's still nothing quite like seeing Impressionist paintings in person to fully appreciate their colorful vitality, technical virtuosity and luminosity.

Though it's derided in some quarters as too easy and cliche, Impressionism affords a refuge from the harshness of modern life. One of the great pleasures these artists offer, aside from sharing their love of beauty and sumptuous women, is that they allow us to enter their worlds of glistening water, soul-warming sun, the spectacular light show of a waning day, and the bonhomie of stylish men in straw boaters escorting fashionable female companions.

That said, only a third of the 80-odd paintings, lithographs, sketches and a smattering of photographs here fall into the category of what's considered true Impressionism, works produced from 1874 to 1884.

Although beautifully installed and lit to maximum effect, this exhibition has neither the depth nor breadth of the "Women Impressionists" or "Musee d'Orsay" shows that have graced the city in recent years, a fact that substantial padding can't disguise. For example, this may be the first time sailboat models and life-size replicas of wooden skiffs have been displayed in the context of a museum art exhibit; guaranteed to put you in the mind of a seashore idyll, yes, but another gallery full of paintings would have been preferable.

Further rounding-out includes an introductory gallery of Impressionist precursors, traditional French marine painters such as Eugene Louis Boudin and Charles-Francois Daubigny, formative influences on the budding Monet. Boudin is represented by the aptly titled "Storm over Antwerp" (1872), an ominous, high-contrast expanse of turbulent sky reflected in roiling seas. Daubigny, who was partial to serene river settings, came up with the floating studio, a brilliant concept Monet adopted for his own.

In 1874, Monet painted a picture of his roving houseboat, a simple vessel that gave him a unique perspective of water and shoreline. He, like his fellow Impressionists, painted outdoors, a revolutionary practice condemned as sauvage in conservative art circles.

Even from across a room, Alfred Sisley's stunning "Banks of the Loing" (1891) catches your eye and won't let go. In it, a boat rests on a beach as shadows begin to fall, while across a glassy, deep green river, sunlight shimmers on the front row of trees whose darker hues suggest the depth of the woods that lay behind them. A high point is a section focusing on Argenteuil, a popular 19th-century tourist destination close to Paris where Renoir and Monet, who had a house there, worked.

Both Renoir and Monet painted sailboats at Argenteuil in 1874, from the same vantage point. Details in their respective paintings reflect differences in their personalities and artistic choices. Monet grew up in nearby Le Havre on the banks of the River Seine; ergo, his sublime "The Seine at Argenteuil" (1874). (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, a 2000 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, emphasized the important role the suburban town played in the early development of the movement.)

Not as famous as his contemporaries, Gustave Caillebotte, the heir to a wealthy family, may be better-known as a yachtsman and boat designer than as an artist, but his paintings that depict his twin passions, boat racing and gardening, attest to the multiple talents of a renaissance man. An avid collector and a staunch supporter of Impressionist ideology, he purchased many of his friends' paintings; his family bequest later went to the Musee d'Orsay.

The show concludes with Neo- and Post-Impressionist pieces, some quite breathtaking, like "Night at Sea" (1897), Henri Riviere's Japanese-inflected lithograph of sailboats adrift in a magical azure ocean where the dazzling primal blue of sea and sky appear to merge, and Edouard Vuillard's "The Boatman" (1897). Done in hyperreal colors - glacier-blue skies and even bluer water, saffron trees rising up on the hillside - this hallucinatory oil painting on cardboard, with an unconventional, photograph-like composition of a man piloting a terracotta-colored rowboat, seems to have been created in a dream state. Suspended somewhere between Naturalism and Symbolism, it signals the imminent arrival of modernism, thundering in the near distance.

Through Oct. 13

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