Critics called them radicals and lunatics. Pregnant ladies might miscarry, one French caricaturist hinted broadly, if they peered too closely at such paintings. Who were these dreadful artists? They were the Impressionists, that brilliant band of men and women who, in a few short years, revolutionized the claustrophobic world of French art. Young and energetic, they moved art outdoors, literally and figuratively, furiously painting railroad stations, open-air dance halls, even a circus performer dangling from the ceiling. In response, many of the archconservative arbiters of art in Paris slammed their doors in horror. But the artists would not be denied. On April 15, 1874 Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro launched the first of eight anti-establishment exhibits held during the next 12 years, shows that also displayed Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Signac and Georges-Pierre Seurat. Now 150 of the more than 1,500 paintings that hung in these legendary displays are on view at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in a historic show entitled "The New Painting, Impressionism, 1874-1886." On April 19 the paintings move to the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco for three months.
The show's visitors should have more fun than the crowds greeting the original exhibits 112 years ago. Back then one critic complained that the linen Degas' laundress was ironing seemed "repulsively dirty," while Renoir's sun-streaked torso of a young woman moved another to lament that "its flesh has the purplish tone of meat gone rank." The press at the second show, the following year, was so vitriolic that Berthe Morisot's husband had to be restrained from challenging one critic to a duel. The opening earlier this year presented a very different picture. Adding sheen to the ceremonies were five Impressionist descendants: Minnie Cassatt Hickman, a filmmaker and the great-grandniece of Cassatt; Sophie Renoir, an actress and great-granddaughter of Renoir; Françoise Cachin, a curator of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and granddaughter of Signac; Jean-Marie Toulgouat, the great-grandson of Monet; and Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel, great-grandson of the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and his mother. The proud belle of the ball, looking as though she had stepped from one of her great-grandfather's canvases, was Renoir, 21, who grew up in her ancestor's house in Essoyes. "You feel great, positive waves in that house," she said. "There were scholars, painters, children. My great-grandfather asked the housemaids not to polish the floors because he was afraid the children might fall. The house has a story." And when a TV reporter asked if her famous name would help her career, she beamed. "Honestly," Renoir said, "I hope so."
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