Courtesy PhotoPierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Oarsmen at Chatou” captures French society’s growing interest in boating.

Courtesy PhotoPierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Oarsmen at Chatou” captures French society’s growing interest in boating.

Impressionism masters take delight in water

Everyone knows the impressionists loved water: Claude Monet’s lilies, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s boating parties, Édouard Manet’s sailing lovers and Georges Seurat’s Seine are iconic images from the movement.

With the America’s Cup races as a timely tie-in, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have organized “Impressionists on the Water,” an exhibit of more than 80 works by renowned artists on view at the Legion of Honor from Saturday through Oct. 13.

The impressionists, with their obsession with capturing the nuances of light and painting “en plein air,” inevitably gravitated toward boats.

Monet painted on one (a painting of his “studio boat” is in the show), Paul Signac owned nearly 30 and Gustave Caillebotte designed them.

Several half-boat models by Caillebotte and a full-size boat, the Gig Nana, are at the front of the exhibition under an open skylight.

“I’m used to working with two-dimensional paintings,” says Melissa Buron, assistant curator of European art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “But installing boat models has been fun.”

Perhaps most famous for his 1875 painting “The Floor Scrapers” (which was rejected for exhibition by the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris), Caillebotte anchors the show. He designed 25 boats in his lifetime, won dozens of races and co-owned a shipyard.

Among the most highly skilled impressionists, Caillebotte never achieved the high fame of other members in his coterie. Although Caillebotte was an insider of the period who exhibited numerous times, he is remembered more as a collector, investor and exhibition facilitator.

He launched the Musée d’Orsay’s famed impressionist collection by bequeathing 60 paintings he owned upon his death in 1894.

The substantial “Skiffs on the Yerres” shows off Caillebotte’s gifted hand, with three men skimming the river in elegant rigs, and water as lively and mercurial as Monet at his best.

“Regatta at Argenteuil,” another large painting by Caillebotte, is elegant, the boats painted with a precision and angularity that communicate their speed, swiftness and agility.

Other highlights include Renoir’s “Oarsmen at Chatou” near the entrance to the show and Monet’s “The Studio Boat.” The picture is a quaint peek into the life of perhaps the world’s most popular painter, who created his little river hut in vivid sea greens and yellows, echoing Van Gogh in color and brushwork.

“The relationship between the impressionists and boats gives a glimpse into what their lives were like,” Buron says. “In San Francisco we are surrounded by the beauty of water and its changing elements. These are the same effects the artists were trying to capture when painting these compositions.”

IF YOU GO

Impressionists on the Water

  • Where: Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
  • When: Opens Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Oct. 13
  • Admission: $11 to $21
  • Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.famsf.org

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