`THE grand tradition is lost and the new one is not yet
created." The poet and critic Baudelaire described
mid-19th-century France this way - just before the period
documented in the "Origins of Impressionism" exhibition now at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nearly 200 paintings by more than 30 artists, including Courbet,
Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, illustrate this
transitional stage in French art. In the decade from 1859 to 1870,
academic history painting had grown fussy and arid, just before
full-blown Impressionism unleashed its torrents of sun and color.
Strangely, for an exhibition of painters associated with
light-flooded canvases, the 11 Metropolitan galleries are as dim as
a subterranean tunnel. For the most part, the light remains around
the corner, in the Met's permanent 19th-century galleries, where
mature Impressionist masterpieces are displayed in all their
This exhibit traces the roots of Impressionism, and substantial
dirt clings to those roots. It's not just the earth tones of the
Barbizon School and terrestrial realism of Courbet, important
precursors of Impressionism. It's the fact that these selections
are mediocre examples of work by artists like Corot, Daubigny,
Rousseau, and Courbet.
Nevertheless, as a didactic exercise, the show makes its point.
The initial galleries of Salon paintings (formulaic scenes
glorifying mythological or historical events in excruciatingly
perfect detail) convince us that Neoclassicism had reached a dead
end. Jean Leon Gme's "King Candaules" (1859) represents
everything the nascent movement detested. Gme's standing nude is as
static as a Greek statue; his king's profile could have been copied
from an urn. Tedious, pompous, and antiquarian, official art was a
ripe target for rebels.
The loudest blast on the trumpet of revolution was sounded by an
unlikely anarchist, Manet, an aristocrat in a top hat who longed
for nothing more than public acceptance. Art historians date the
debut of modern painting from 1863, when Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur
l'herbe" (a version of which is shown at the Met) attracted
squawks of derision at the Salon des Refuses. "Apostle of the ugly
and repulsive" was one of the milder epithets thrown at him.
Manet's offense was to reject the dogma that prevailed since the
Renaissance. He overturned the concept of painting as a window on
three-dimensional reality, simulating through perspective, shading,
and invisible brush strokes a world beyond the picture plane.
Manet's bold light-dark contrasts announced that a painting is
unabashedly a collection of lines, colors, and shapes on canvas, as
in "The Fifer" (1866). The boy should be playing a tuba to match
the impact of this work. "Manet was a whole new era of painting,"
The frank realism of Manet's nudes and their sheer modernity hit
the vein that Impressionists would mine. Art would henceforth
present a subjective snapshot of current life or nature, without
narration or idealization - and without disguising the hand of the