Gustave Caillebotte's "The Floor Scrapers"

Sit with this for a moment: beginning this late spring through January 2011, over two hundred iconic French Impressionist, Postimpressionist, Realist, and Naturalist paintings will be on show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. And these works will never be seen again in such quantity outside of their home, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Opening May 22 (and running through September 6) is “Birth of Impressionism,” which will feature about half the works and focus on Paris around 1874, when the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings took place. “There was a preponderance of different styles,” says  Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco John Buchanan, “all at once and all in one city.”
Almost immediately following (opening September 25 and running through January 18, 2011) is the exhibition “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond,” featuring Postimpression-ist work by the greatest masters of the genre. The de Young is the only venue in the world to get both shows.
How’d we get so lucky? It’s all about passion and good relationships. But first some background. The Musée d’Orsay is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of nineteenth century French art, including Impressionist and Postimpressionist work, by design. Housed in what was originally a train station (note: the architect who transformed it into the museum, the renowned Gae Aulenti, is also responsible for San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum), created in 1900 for the Paris International Exhibition, the museum was launched in 1986. Its mission is to highlight Western art from 1848 to 1914. Its collection was formed by consolidating the best pieces from this period from the Louvre, Jeu de Paume, and the Modern Art Museum in Paris, as well as generous gifts from private parties. Many of the works coming to San Francisco were originally in the collection of Gustave Caillebotte; a painter himself (his stunning painting The Floor Scrapers will be on show in the first exhibition), he was also a man of great financial means. This allowed him to be an early collector of work by fellow artists. Interestingly as well, several paintings are making a return, having also been shown in San Francisco at the Panama Pacific exhibition of 1915.
In anticipation of its twenty-fifth anniversary next year, the d’Orsay is undergoing a major refurbishment. “The current director, Guy Cogeval, is a professional and personal friend of mine,” says Buchanan. “He asked if I wanted to make an exhibition with him.” Cogeval and Buchanan—who has a great love of nineteenth century French art and culture—met on several occasions to plan the show: two exhibitions emerged. And to that, Buchanan simply said: “I think we should do both.”
Viewers can anticipate what amounts to the rare experience of art history books come to life. The first exhibition highlights works by over forty artists, including such visionary masters as Edgar Degas, Frederic Bazille, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Gustav Courbet. Highlights include: Degas’s The Dancing Lesson (1873–1876) and Racehorses Before the Stands (1866–1868), Monet’s Saint-Lazare Station (1877) and Rue Montorquei, Paris (1878), and Pierre Puvi de Chavannes’s Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea (1879), among so many others. Buchanan points out that he is particularly excited about the numerous fine Manets that will be here—there will be eleven, ranging from 1865 to 1882. “He was a great Naturalist,” Buchanan says, “yet he was close friends with the Impressionists. His work was influenced by seventeenth century Spanish paintings. He was the first truly modern artist.” Particularly, Buchanan singles out The Fife Player (1866). “We make direct contact with a real human being,” he says of the painting’s subject. “He’s gazing directly at us.” Another greatly anticipated work is what many of us know as “Whistler’s Mother,” American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black, no. 1 (1871). “It shows Realist and Naturalist tendencies,” Buchanan says. “And the influence of Japanese art.”
Running concurrent to “Birth of Impressionism” is “Impressionist Paris: City of Light,” at the de Young’s sister venue, the Legion of Honor (June 5 through September 26). Featuring over 180 prints, photographs, paintings, and books, it will add further context to the main exhibition.
Following, the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond” exhibition features 120 works focusing on late Impressionist masterpieces, as well as Pointillist paintings by such masters as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Some of what we can look forward to: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone (1888), Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ (1889) by Paul Gauguin, and Seurat’s The Circus (1891).
“This is a huge moment for those of us who love France and French art,” Buchanan concludes. “It’s like stepping into an art history book of late nineteenth century France.”