Intimate is a word with many connotations. It may mean private or personal. It may suggest a loving relationship. It may mean essential, belonging to one’s deepest nature.
All of these terms apply to “Intimate Impressionism,” a show of nearly 70 intimately scaled Impressionist and post-Impressionist works from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C, on view at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.
These masterworks by the likes of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat are small enough to hang in your home and did indeed hang in the domiciles of collector Alisa Mellon Bruce, daughter of the National Gallery’s founder, Andrew Mellon, and her younger brother Paul Mellon.
Their subject matter is also intimate. Here are portraits and self-portraits by artists who were friends, paintings of family members and pets, delicate still lifes and paintings of the artists’ favorite places and people – race tracks and beaches, backstage ballerinas and fashionable young ladies.
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A luscious still life of oysters by Manet invites your delectation in the first room of the show. It is painted with the brio of a Velasquez, as are his dashing paintings of a King Charles spaniel and “Tama, the Japanese Dog” with a doll.
These works alone are worth a trip to the show, but there is so much more: a roomful of seascapes and beach scenes by Eugene Boudin, who had a strong influence on Monet; a room of Renoirs, sometimes cloyingly sweet as in a still life of peaches, but also surprising as in an asymmetrical composition of Madame Monet and her son; a pair of rare and atypical geometric landscapes by Odilon Redon; brooding paintings of family members in interiors by Édouard Vuillard, one of a group of artists who called themselves the Nabis; and vibrantly colored paintings of picnic tables by fellow Nabis Pierre Bonnard.
Among the portraits and self-portraits, Vuillard’s small but intense painting of himself, Manet’s painting of artist George Moore in his garden, and Paul Gauguin’s bold, symbolic self-portrait in Breton clothes stand out.
Among the many fine still lifes, Antoine Vollon’s “Mound of Butter” with its rich impastos of creamy yellow contrasting with the hard white of egg shells attracts the eye, as does Henri Fantin Latour’s “Three Peaches on a Plate,” which is so much more subtle and dignified than Renoir’s peaches. Paul Cezanne’s “Three Pears” is suggestive and contrasts with the solidity of his “Still Life With Milk Jug and Fruit.”
As for landscapes one marvels at the freshness of Camille Pissarro’s “Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes,” Alfred Sisley’s lush “Meadow,” Seurat’s dappled “Study for ‘La Grande Jatte’ ” and Boudin’s colorful “Concert at the Casino of Deauville.” There are also stirring race track scenes by Edgar Degas and Manet, who captures the speed of the galloping horses, and a strange allegorical scene of frolicking nudes by Cezanne, titled “The Battle of Love.”
Lastly there are the rooms devoted to Vuillard and Bonnard, with their contrasting dispositions: Bonnard’s cheerful brashness and tender draughtsmanship and Vuillard’s emotionally fraught scenes of his mother’s house, especially his “Woman in Black” and the psychologically compelling “The Conversation,” in which his sister confronts his mother while gripping a tilted chair in a close interior.
“Intimate Impressionism is an incomparable show of the highest quality. It comes to San Francisco in the middle of a world tour while its permanent home in the National Gallery is undergoing renovation. You won’t want to miss it.