Light on the Water
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.