The Legion of Honor’s exhibition “Impressionists on the Water,” in conjunction with America’s Cup, offers an examination of the important role boating themes played in the social and artistic contexts of late 19th century French painting. Many of the painters were themselves interested in sailing, rowing and yachting, and their intimate knowledge of boats is made clear in the technological detail of their paintings and designs. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by “Nana” (1890), a large and imposing cedar French cruising gig and an example of the sophisticated design of Fernand Delmez frequently depicted in the paintings of Monet and Renoir. Nautical subjects were also popular at the time, as they provided a vehicle for Impressionist painters to express their interpretations of reality and modernity as well as allowing them to pursue their interests in the effects of light and atmosphere.
The exhibition traces the theme of boating in the history of French art, beginning with early Impressionist maritime painting and ending with Post-Impressionist works. The early paintings include Eugene Isabey’s “Fishing Village” (1852), an oil painting that adds a narrative to its nautical depiction by communicating what it was like to live and work on the coast in adverse conditions. The early section of the exhibition also includes a series of etchings by Charles-Francois Daubigny from “The Boat Trip” (1862). The series includes a stunning depiction of “The Floating Studio,” a boat Daubigny acquired to allow him to work directly on the waterways and that he named “Le Botin” (Little Box).
Inspired by Daubigny, Monet created a similar vessel in order to take to the water to paint, captured in his “The Studio Boat” (1874). Monet’s oil paintings and chalk drawings stand out as by far the most striking in the collection. The flurries of brushstrokes and pure colors in “The Seashore at Sainte-Adresse” (1864) and “The Seine at Argenteuil” (1873) set his work apart, making a powerful impact on visitors. The loose, broken brushstrokes of Renoir’s “Oarsmen at Chatou” (1879) are similarly spectacular. Several of the works — such as Renoir’s “The Seine at Argenteuil” (1874) and Monet’s painting of the same name — attempt to capture the atmospheric river at Argenteuil, a popular tourist destination at the time.
One of the rooms is devoted entirely to the yachtsman, boat designer and painter Gustave Caillebotte. Caillebotte’s paintings are notable for their steep viewpoints and the sense of unabating realism conveyed in works such as “Sunflowers on the Banks of the Seine” (1886). Caillebotte’s works not only demonstrate his skills as a painter but also his expertise as a yachtsman; in “The Regatta at Argenteuil” (1893), he painted himself steering a boat with one finger. Such ease of steering conveys his mastery of boats.
After the Caillebotte room, the exhibition begins to feel somewhat disjointed. Post-Impressionist painters such as Paul Signac and Maurice Denis reinterpret the theme of boating by placing the river and sea within a new aesthetic of flat, decorative designs, such as the wallpaper designs of Denis. These works, although beautiful, leave the visitor with a sense that they have all been thrown together merely because they each depict a nautical subject of sorts. In this room, one also finds a somewhat unlikely nautical sport enthusiast in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. “The Passenger from Cabin 54” (1896) operates as a change from the nightclub scenes he is so famous for, yet it still feels a little out of place in the exhibition.
These turn-of-the-century French boating images represent the calm before the storm of the more radical modern art movements that would follow. While the exhibition does not exactly thrill visitors and, at $17 a ticket, may leave students feeling underwhelmed, niche art enthusiasts will likely find this exploration of boating as a pastime and this artistic subject a delightful and satisfying experience.