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Washington opens `thinking man's' Impressionist show

The biggest, most ambitious show on Impressionism that's ever been assembled since Monet, Renoir, Degas, and their fellow artists caught light in their paintbrushes opens here today at the National Gallery. Titled ``The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,'' the exhibition includes 150 Impressionist paintings never gathered before under one roof. Some of them, hidden in private collections, have not been seen by the public in decades. The international exhibit has been brought together from 33 European, 48 American, and 5 Asian collections. It will be seen in only two American locations: the National Gallery exhibit, which closes April 6, and after that at San Francisco's Fine Arts Museum (April 19-July 6).

National Gallery director J. Carter Brown calls it ``not just another Impressionism show, but the thinking man's Impressionism show.'' French Ambassador Emmanuelle de Margerie, former director of the Louvre and all of France's museums, says, ``I believe this show is going to be an epochmaking exhibition, inasmuch as it is going to give us a wider view of what the painting scene was at the moment'' Impressionism was launched. ``I think it's not only a beautiful exhibition, but an important one from the point of view of the history of art.''

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He and Carter Brown are talking about the special focus of this multimillion-dollar show, which includes selections from the eight Impressionist ``salons'' of paintings chosen by the artists themselves and held in Paris between 1874 and 1886. This show, culled from the cream of the eight exhibitions, constitutes a ninth and separate exhibit never before assembled of the works of such famous Impressionists as Monet, Cassatt, C'ezanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Caillebotte, as well as more obscure artists like Desboutin, Bracquemond, and Rouart. The Impressionism show, sponsored by AT&T, marks the inauguration of a new gallery in the museum's old West Wing in space that was formerly used as a basketball court for museum guards.

In addition to the loan of these priceless paintings (21 from the Jeu de Palme in Paris), France has, as Carter Brown points out, loaned some of the great artists' heirs for the opening of this exhibition. They were introduced to the press at a French breakfast (croissants, brioche, fresh fruit that resembled a still life) on a day that looked like a Monet snow scene from the museum's top floor overlooking Washington.

Among the heirs were the young actress Sophie Renoir, great-granddaughter of French Impressionist Auguste Renoir and granddaughter of film director Jean Renoir.

``When you see a Renoir painting,'' she said, ``you must never forget what he meant you to see.'' She grew up amid Renoir's masterpieces in his home in Essoyes, France. Her favorite painting: Renoir's ``Dance at Bougival,'' the poster painting for the recent Renoir show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The actress made her first film at 13 (``The Children Are Watching,'' with Alain Delon). Miss Renoir, a pretty brunette with bangs who wore a black and white striped outfit and black mink coat, dropped out of school at 16 to act. She is making a film with director Eric Rohmer.

Another Impressionist heir, Jean-Marie Toulgouat, great-grandson of Claude Monet, lives at Giverny amid Monet's gardens and water lilies. He is a painter who works ``between nature and Impressionism.'' Monet, a gray-bearded man in a russet tweed suit, says his famous great-grandfather ``only had enough money to survive after his exhibitions in America,'' which allowed him to buy Giverny. His favorite Monet works are from his last years, ``very important for the future . . . for every painter after him, because he began to do something almost abstract. It was the first time you could see in the art the complete freedom in the expression and the color,'' which Toulgouat says connects with today's abstract Impressionism.

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