The Birth of Impressionism exhibit at San Francisco's de Young Museum is marvelous. It places Impressionism, and its beginnings, in its historical and art historical context. The show begins with French Academic painting, and shows successful paintings from the annual Paris Salon exhibition. The Salon was the place to exhibit work, in its day. Success there ensured a painter like William-Adolphe Bouguereau of well-heeled patrons, and a lucrative career.
At the Salon, paintings were hung floor to ceiling, as this exhibit below from the Owens Salon, part of Owens Art Gallery in Canada, demonstrates. Walls were dark - often a burgundy-ish color, as the walls were at the de Young for the Birth of Impressionism exhibit.
Salon-style exhibition at Owens Art Gallery, New Brunswick, Canada
Judges at the Salon determined what work would be hung where. Celebrated paintings of the time were slickly finished, with invisible brushstrokes. Their subjects were idealized, preferably mythological. If the judges didn't like the work, it would be placed high up - where it would be hard to see. One obvious solution for artists was to work very large; many paintings for salon exhibits were painted on a grand scale for that reason. The Bougeureau painting above is nearly ten feet tall.
It's much easier to realize how different the work of the Impressionists was to the eyes of their contemporaries, when you see typical Salon paintings, with their slick finishes and idealized subjects. It's easier to recognize how difficult it was for them, and for other painters who defied the French Academy, to strike out in their own directions. Edouard Manet continued to try to gain acceptance by the Academy, and its Salon, while painting as he chose. The show included beautiful paintings of his, including The Lady with Fans and The Fifer.
The Lady with Fans, Nina de Callias, 1873, Edouard Manet
The Fifer, 1866, Edouard Manet
More subtle, but with a wonderful story behind it, was this small painting of a single spear of asparagus.
Asparagus, 1880, Eduoard Manet
Manet sold another still life painting of a bunch of asparagus to Charles Ephrussi, who loved it, and paid him more than the asking price. In answer, Manet painted this small painting, and sent it to Ephrussi, saying in a note that there was one missing from the bunch.
By, the way, although this wasn't in the exhibit, here's the original bunch of asparagus....
The Bunch of Asparagus, 1880, Edouard Manet
(To be continued...)
To learn more about French academic painting and how Impressionism differed from it, see my blog post French Academic Painting in the 19th century.