In recent years there have been exhibitions featuring the Impressionists in various settings: Impressionists by the Sea; Impressionists in Winter; Manet, Monet: the Saint-Lazare Railroad Station. Who knows what the future promises? Impressionists at the Barber Shop, maybe, or Impressionists in the Rain. Between now and then you can sample (and savor) Impressionists on the Water at the Legion of Honor. You’re greeted in the foyer by a snappy, streamlined, 19th-century cruising gig, a sleek dagger of a pleasure boat once owned by the writer Zola and purchased with the help of Caillebotte, a good painter and passionate yachtsman.
The Impressionists were pleasure-givers for every occasion, and most of them not only painted marinescapes and riverside scenes but participated, as so many city folk did, in regular excursions to country spots where they boated, fished, and inhaled the country air. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Daubigny, and Sisley made hundreds of pictures of water scenes with that tremulous, fluttery, mercurial brushwork we associate with Impressionism. The exhibition provides historical precedents for their practice. A couple of pre-Impressionist works by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (1839–1889) are silky sheets of color depicting milky blue waters and skies. Eugène Boudin (1824–1898) produced mostly seaside pictures featuring bourgeois vacationers. I love the strange open-aired intimacy of his pictures: the stippled textures lend a physical fastness to scenes that are all process and change, the moving tides and blowing sands. The masts and spars in one picture are thin racy gray slashes of paint that look blown into place by sea wind.
The most popular place for boating parties was Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb of Paris where the Seine was widest and deepest. Monet spent so much time there that he built a studio boat. Pictures generally are crafted illusions of a primary reality, but Monet’s pictures are special — they’re depictions of illusion-ness. His imagery exists in a present tense that feels like something just now gone, just now past tense. He loved how water surfaces create reality’s second life and bear images of the surround, of trees, storm clouds, rushes, hulls and masts and sails. The dazzler in this show is a picture of his studio boat at Argenteuil — the spy hiding in plain sight. Appropriate to his inquiry into illusion, the boat is absinthe green.
The very big crowd at the Legion the Sunday I visited was having a very big time. Sisley’s high voltage foliage, Signac’s radiant pointillist sand and sea (his pictures really light up a room), Renoir’s sexy energetic social groups, Lepic’s mineralized, malachite–blue tide lines — virtually every picture re-imagines and makes into something a little strange the familiar particulars of a familiar world. The special surprise for me was Caillebotte’s picture of a rigatta at Argenteuil. He translated his love of the sport into the structural raciness of deep space, out of which arises the sweeping twist of a tall sail filled with wind that made me think of Indian summer.