Gesturing toward an oil painting rich with painterly light, French maritime historian Daniel Charles declares, “Monet was an observant sailor, and the boat that we see here would have been the first he had seen that was rigged the new way. A painting such as this is not only art, it is a textbook.”
So it goes, painting by painting, throughout Impressionists on the Water, an exhibition continuing through October 13 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum, timed to coincide with America’s Cup sailing on San Francisco Bay. The Impressionists, we discover, were also sailors, inspired by late-19th century modernity-in-the-making and abetted by the new railroad that made the village of Argenteuil—alongside a wide spot on the Seine west of Paris—a hotspot for both sailing and painting. Monet kept a floating studio. Manet joined in. The Sailing Club of Paris established a clubhouse (the distinguished Cercle de la Voile de Paris) and one of its painter-members, Gustave Caillebotte, taught Paul Signac how to sail. Caillebotte also designed and built boats, won championships with them and painted a self-portrait steering with just one finger—to make a point about his worth as a naval architect.
Emile Zola’s rowboat is on display, all brightwork inside and out, with a sliding seat plus a wicker bench well-suited for a lady with the parasol. The museum itself will win your heart, sited high in a park above the Golden Gate Strait, with views up the coastline all the way to Point Reyes. And the exhibition, Impressionists on the Water, will be a memorable addition to any tour of San Francisco in this America’s Cup year.
Images courtesy of San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum