PARIS — Impressionism, a term long synonymous with 19th-Century France and its bucolic countryside, has assumed ironic new meaning here following the arrival of a major art exhibition from Los Angeles.
It is called "A Day in the Country--Impressionism and the French Landscape," and it was the jewel of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Since opening here last month at the Grand Palais, it has drawn huge crowds--and effusive praise from the normally reticent French press.
More than half the paintings are on loan from museums and private collections in the United States, and the French are seeing many of them for the first time. Accordingly, the public is discovering that France holds no monopoly on Impressionism. Or, as a banner headline in a Parisian newspaper put it, "L'Impressionisme Made in USA."
The exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago and the National French Museums. It moved to Chicago in October after closing in Los Angeles.
For Frederic Edelman, an art critic for the respected newspaper Le Monde, there is "magnificent irony" in the French enthusiasm for the show.
"The French," he said in a recent interview, "are applauding the United States for organizing this exhibition and contributing so many works. But in fact the French are celebrating themselves, their countryside, their heritage."
Even with winter chilling the capital, people in near-record numbers are lining up outside the Grand Palais near the Champs Elysees to see the show, a 125-piece exhibition of the works of 17 artists ranging from Frederic Bazille to Vincent van Gogh.
And just as the American press bubbled over the show, the French press, usually temperate in its cultural commentary, has been effusive in praising the exhibition.
Le Figaro, a conservative daily, urged its readers to see the exhibition before it closes on April 22 because "even in the distant future, there is little likelihood that the French will see another operation of similar scale and opulence."
Herve Gauville, a critic for the newspaper Liberation, applauded the United States for lending about 60 works to the show. "Thank you, Uncle Sam!" he said in his review, and added:
"The Impressionist exhibition is truly an American event. Make no mistake about it, the works by Pissarro, Monet, Caillebotte, Manet and all the slapdash painters on the banks of the Seine are not French. Or at least they are no longer French. We knew it before, but now we can see it with our own eyes. Impressionist painting has become one of the most beautiful jewels of American art collections."
More than 20 American museums and collectors across the United States lent paintings to the show. The Art Institute of Chicago provided 24, the most from an American institution. The Los Angeles County Museum sent two, one by Claude Monet and the other by Camille Pissarro. And the Santa Barbara Museum lent one, by Berthe Morisot.
French museums, in particular the Jeu de Paume Galleries of the new Musee D'Orsay in Paris, provided more than 40 pieces for the show. The rest came from Canada, England and other American and European private collections.
With attendance averaging between 5,000 and 7,000 a day, organizers believe the exhibition has a good chance of finishing near the top of the all-time list of France's most popular art exhibitions.
Yet despite the attendance figures and the ebullition in the press, there are some who find fault with the show. Franck Maubert, for example, in the weekly news magazine L'Express, began his review of the exhibition with the comment that the paintings from Chicago "have been excessively and improperly cleaned."
Edelman of Le Monde criticized the show for its organization. Rather than being arranged in historical sequence or stylistically, the exhibition is organized by subject matter, under topic headings such as rivers, roads and railways, the countryside and the sea.
"This thematic classification has the inconvenience of removing the chronological context from the show," Edelman said in his review. "It also has the tendency to erase the individual personalities of the artists as well as their stylistic similarities."
Sylvie Gache-Patin of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, one of six principal organizers of the show, said in an interview that the show's organization was intentionally aimed at destroying the old notion that Impressionist painting is "solely an aesthetic phenomenon, devoid of meaning."
"The Impressionists were not simply painting naive versions of reality," she went on. "The Impressionist landscapes were saturated with meaning, and that is what this show is all about."
France is considered to have the most substantial collection of French Impressionist paintings in the world, scattered across the country in more than 1,000 museums. The United States and the Soviet Union, art experts say, follow in terms of the size and quality of their collections.
The Impressionists received a lukewarm reception in Paris in April, 1874, when the first exhibition of their paintings was opened to the public. And since French collectors did not display enough interest in this "new style," art dealers were forced to explore foreign markets.
Today, American museums and collectors continue to bid on Impressionist art when it appears at auction. The Americans, often with more money at their disposal than their French counterparts, usually get what they want.
"France regrets having given up this part of its heritage," Le Monde's Edelman said, referring to French Impressionist art now in America. "But once it's done, voila! It's the law of the free market. We can live with that."