‘Women Impressionists’ finally shown together

It wasn’t easy being a female American artist in the 19th century, but Mary Stevenson Cassatt did succeed in making her mark in the art capital of the world at the time.

She made a near-impossible transition from Pennsylvania to Paris salons in the 1870s, with a series of eight annual exhibits that introduced and defied impressionism. Her mentors and future fellow exhibitors included Degas and Pissarro.

Even today, she and other women painters of the era are far less known than Manet, Monet and Renoir. That’s what makes San Francisco’s Legion of Honor’s “Women Impressionists,” opening Saturday, of special interest. The exhibit, with variety and appealing quality, features some 160 works from museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.

Besides Cassatt, the show features French artists Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Eva Gonzales (1849-1883) and Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916).

All four were accepted, with some reluctance, in the revolutionary movement named after Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise.” Their works are characterized by visible brush strokes, emphasis on light and movement, ordinary subject matters and unusual angles.

Morisot’s elegant brush stroke prompted one critic to call her “the most Impressionistic of the impressionists;” she was the only woman to exhibit in the first impressionist exhibition, and in each of the next seven.

Gonzales, a student of Manet, produced excellent paintings, although relative few, due to her death at age 34. Bracquemond also exhibited with the impressionists, but later abandoned painting.

In spite of their presence “in the beginning,” the four subsequently received relatively few opportunities to exhibit. This show, coming from Frankfurt and with its only U.S. viewing here in The City, makes up for lost time. It also represents the first opportunity to see the work of these women artists side by side.

Besides displaying art, the exhibit also provides an insight into the lives of the artists. They and other women living in Paris in the late 19th century were subject to a strict code of social rules that are difficult to imagine today (outside Saudi Arabia).

An unmarried woman, for example, could not leave her home without a chaperone, nor could she frequent a cafe or the theater by herself. However, women were encouraged to have interest in the decorative arts, music or painting — pursuits that could be practiced at home or in the company of other women.

The road from there to rubbing shoulders with the giants of impressionists was rocky indeed, making the results displayed in this show all the more … impressive.

IF YOU GO

Women Impressionists

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays; exhibit closes Sept. 21

Tickets: $11 to $15; free for children 12 and under; advance tickets recommended

Contact: (866) 912-6326; www.museumtix.com; www.famsf.org/legion/

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