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Six masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay worth travelling to Adelaide for

Ben Neutze

The Art Gallery of South Australia is currently home to some major French artists: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat, Cézanne, Boudin, Gaugin and Morisot. They're all here – well, 65 of their paintings are – because France's glorious Musée d'Orsay has opened up its collection and lent a treasure trove of impressionist masterpieces to Adelaide for the winter.

The Colours of Impressionism exhibition is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until July 29. As you walk through the gallery spaces, the exhibition traces how the use of colour evolved over the course of the impressionist movement, from the 1860s through to the 1900s. Not only does that mean the exhibition is colour-coded, but it's a fascinating learning experience.

We toured the exhibition with the Musée d'Orsay's curator of painting Paul Perrin, who gave us the backstories of some of the masterpieces that have just arrived.

1. This once controversial snowy landscape

Claude Monet, 'The magpie', 1868-1869, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

This lush snowy landscape, painted while Monet was staying in Normandy for the winter, is probably the most famous painting in the exhibition and also one of the most popular works in the Musée d'Orsay's collection. Although it may look fairly conventional to modern eyes, it proved to be massively controversial when it was unveiled. Monet submitted it to the Paris Salon of 1869, the most significant art event in the western world at the time, but it was rejected for its experimental use of colour.

If you look closely, there's very little plain white in the work, instead it features deep blues and flecks of yellow and pink, representing the way the light hit the snow with more accuracy.

"It’s a very ambitious painting and it’s quite large for Monet," Perin says. "At the time Monet is in his 20s and he wanted to be recognised and he wanted to be famous.

"What’s quite scandalous is how Monet is applying painting on the canvas: you have visible brushstrokes… You can see the gesture of the artist, which is quite new."

In the decades following, Monet and his impressionist friends would go on to paint hundreds of snowscapes, experimenting with colour and light. There's a room in the exhibition devoted to these snowscapes.

2. Monet's beloved water lily pond

Claude Monet, 'Water lily pond, pink harmony', 1900, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

There are ten paintings by Monet in this exhibition – including one from his 'Rouen Cathedral' series – but if he's best known for any single image it's his water lily series. He painted around 250 of these works during the last three decades of his life, drawing inspiration from the gardens at his home in Giverny in Northern France.

The one showing in Adelaide is one of the most famous. It was painted in 1900, several years before the artist developed cataracts, which altered his output in significant ways. The painting features an astonishing range of brushstrokes and textures, which bring Monet's garden vividly to life.

3. Manet's moody, moonlit port

Edouard Manet, 'Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne', 1869, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

The first space in the exhibition is called "From Black to Light" and features some of the darkest and earliest impressionist works. Manet's landscape defied the expectations of the art world at the time. It features no bright, grassy fields, but a moonlit sky hanging over a concrete port. In the foreground is a group of women in white caps waiting for the fishing fleet to return so they can prepare the catch for sale, while in the background silhouettes of sails hang ominously.

"He’s chosen a very particular subject – very modern – which is a night scene, which was not very common at the time," Perin says. "It allows him to play in an even more audacious way with the contrast of black and white."

4. This masterpiece from one of 'les trois grandes dames' of impressionism, Morisot

Berthe Morisot, 'The hydrangea', 1894, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Patrice Schmidt

Berthe Morisot was one of the leading artists of the impressionist movement, and though it would be overstating the case to say that her efforts had been forgotten, she certainly didn't become a household name like some of her male peers. She participated in seven of the eight legendary impressionist exhibitions and was considered one of the three most significant women artists in the movement, alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.

In 2013, Morisot become the highest priced female artist, with her 'Après le déjeuner' attracting a US$10.9 million price tag. It was surpassed the following year by Georgia O’Keeffe's 'Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1', which went for US$44.4 million  

Morisot's work had a fascinating evolution over the course of her life, and this piece comes from the year before her death. It features a broad range of colours, softened with plenty of white and shows two young women, with one placing a flower in the other's hair.

5. Sisley's surprisingly beautiful painting of a disastrous flood

Alfred Sisley, 'Boat in the flood at Port-Marly', 1876, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Sylvie Chan-Liat

You might expect a painting of a flood that destroyed property and put lives at risk to be a little more on the dramatic side, but Sisley's take on this scene is strangely serene. Of all the impressionists, Sisley did the most en plein air painting, and made a series of paintings showing the flooding at Port-Marly, a village on the Seine where the artist was living at the time. Sisley's painting of the flood waters is particularly novel – his brushstrokes and choice of colour create an almost shimmering effect, reflecting the wine merchant's store threatened by the flood and the bright blue sky.

6. Renoir's portrait of his good friend Monet

Auguste Renoir, 'Claude Monet', 1875, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Many of the impressionists were great friends, but Monet and Renoir seem to have had a very strong bromance, with Monet posing for Renoir multiple times. This portrait shows Monet painting in his own house, and in this exhibition it sits next to one of Monet's own works, showing a young child in the same space with the same curtains.

But what's really interesting about this particular painting is Renoir's use of colour in depicting Monet's skin.

"You can see that the colour of the flesh is not traditional – there are lots of different colours in the flesh of Monet," Perin says. "It was considered really shocking at the time because it was a sort of violence made to the human body and to the beauty of the human body, which is almost sacred at the time."

Colours of Impressionism is at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide until July 29.

Looking for something a little closer to home? Here's the best art in Melbourne this month.

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