The Family of Jean-le-Boîteux, peasants of Plougasnou • Jean-François Raffaëlli, 1876
San Francisco's Birth of Impressionism show not only set the context for the beginnings of French Impressionism, and, ultimately, the revolutions in painting that sprang from it, but it included many paintings not often seen.
Jean-François Raffaëlli and his work were new to me. A contemporary of the Impressionists, he had a landscape painting accepted into the Salon in 1870, when he was only twenty years old. He then turned towards realism, painting the people of his time with an unsparing honesty quite the opposite of idealized salon painting. This painting of a peasant family from the exhibit particularly struck me as contemporary. The composition, with the figure on the left cropped in half, the arrangement of the figures agains a flat wall, and the suspicious, sharp look of Jean-le-Boîteux, seemed very modern. Painted on a heroic scale, the figures themselves are not heroic, but instead worn and work-hardened.
The Tuileries • Claude Monet, 1875
Another favorite of mine from the show was Claude Monet's The Tuileries. I can't find any images online that capture the beauty and subtlety of its color - greens and pinks and yellows that sang.... He drew the sense of the trees with lovely loopy brushstrokes that enchanted me.
La gare Saint-Lazare • Claude Monet, 1877
La gare Saint-Lazare, painted in 1877, was another surprise. Although I'd seen it reproduced in books, I had no idea of the wonderful subtlety and brilliance of the colors. Monet could scumble like nobody's business. Trust me, this lovely little image of it does not do it justice.
The Magpie • Claude Monet, 1869
The Magpie was a painting of Monet's that I did not remember seeing in books before. A docent said that, at Museé d'Orsday, reproductions of it sell more than those of any of their other paintings. I was unexpectedly charmed, and could understand why that was so. Again, it had a subtlety and variety of color that reproduction cannot manage to convey. Monet used his artistic license, too, in reversing the shadows of the magpie and part of the gate (hey, the composition works better that way). A good reminder: never let reality get in the way of a better composition!
The Cradle • Berthe Morisot, 1872
Another painting that was a wonderful surprise was Berthe Morisot's intimately-sized The Cradle. Again, the subtlety and variety of scumbled colors, the beauty of the composition, the delicacy of the line and the sheer drapery above the sleeping child and more wowed me. It's easy to think of both this painting and The Magpie, because of their subject matter, in sentimental terms, but the strength of each makes them far, far better. Don't dismiss either.