On display through Aug. 3, the exhibit — on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. — features some of the most major names from the impressionist and post-impressionist movements: Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, Sisley and more.
Among the 68 small-scale paintings are pleasing landscapes, portraits and still lifes — images that go down so smoothly, it is easy to forget that these painters once shocked the art world with their suggestive, rather than literal, brush strokes.
While the show includes some familiar works, such as Renoir’s portrait of Anne Hathaway lookalike Madame Henriot, the best and most memorable paintings are less famous, more curious items.
Antoine Vollon’s “Mound of Butter” will stick in viewers’ minds long after leaving the show. The painting is just that: a mountain of butter with a palette knife stabbed into it and cheesecloth at the base. The pale, lemony yellow is silky, luscious and greasy. The sculptural mass sits like an anvil in the frame, while the cheesecloth is soft and feathery.
Vollon’s bravura is flagrant. The brushstrokes are big, bold and punky. In some places the paint is a thick pastiche, in others nearly translucent. A warm-cool color contrast, making the satiny butter pop, is synonymous with Dutch master still lifes.
Another visceral still life is Edouard Manet’s “Oysters.” Possibly a gift to Manet’s fiancee Suzanne Leenhoff, the sumptuous picture is the most captivating work in the exhibit’s first room, catching the visitor’s eye with a subtle, shimmering light.
An early Van Gogh, the pre-“Potato Eaters” painting “Flower Beds in Holland” is a nice surprise. The near-symmetrical painting has multicolor tulip patches in the foreground and two thatched farm houses behind. The muted palette is a stark contrast to the bold colors for which Van Gogh later became well-known.
The show ends with prominent tribute to Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, post-impressionists who identified themselves as Les Nabis, a group which sometimes overlapped aesthetically with art nouveau and secessionist movements in the late 19th century.
“The Yellow Curtain” is classic Vuillard. The domestic image is devoted entirely to the gesture of pulling back a curtain. A woman, probably Vuillard’s mother, tips slightly to the left to draw heavy gold drapes, in a quiet, routine daily movement.
Bonnard’s “The Artist’s Studio, 1900” is another hushed scene. Although a woman is in the corner, just barely in the frame, a window is the central focus. Lipped by a bright, titanium sheen, the open curtains invite the viewer to gaze out as the painter would, seated at his easel.
IF YOU GO
Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery
Where: Palace of the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Aug. 3
Admission: $11 to $24
Contact: (415) 750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org