Under renovations, the Philadelphia Art Museum gives its impressionists a fresh look

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In days past, if you had wanted to see Claude Monet’s “The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny,” a popular favorite at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you would make a beeline to Gallery 161, the Rotunda.

But it’s not there anymore. Neither is Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” or “The Large Bathers” by Paul Cézanne opposite its companion, “The Great Bathers” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Nothing is in the Rotunda right now but blank, white walls. The museum is in the midst of overhauling its building, literally from the ground up: It is excavating the building’s footprint to add underground galleries designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.

To bring the existing older galleries up to snuff, the museum is giving them a spit-shine.

“We’re repainting walls, redoing lighting, cleaning floors, to bring them up to modern standards,” said Jennifer Thompson, curator of European painting and sculpture. “They were last renovated in 1993.”

Like Henry David Thoreau who pulled his furniture out of the cabin on Walden Pond and put it outside among the pine trees (“It was worthwhile to see the sunshine on these things, and hear the free wind blow on them,” he wrote), Thompson is getting a new perspective on the museum’s impressionist presentation that has changed little in 25 years.

She is not taking the oil paintings outside, of course, but taking advantage of the building disruption to shuffle the art around and give the work a figurative airing out.

“The Impressionist’s Eye” is the museum’s major summer show, set up in its special exhibition galleries, across the Great Stair lobby from the artwork’s normal home.

“The opportunity to see them in a different space is extraordinary,” said Thompson.

The impressionists are often thought of as artists who worked outside (en plein air) and painted exactly what they saw, quickly and with expressive brushstrokes. The exhibition organized thematically, by genre and subject, points out some of the very sophisticated and subtle decisions the artists were making.

Take Monet’s Japanese footbridge, which opens the show. He chose a square canvas (most landscapes use a rectangular canvas in a horizontal orientation) and cropped out the riverbanks. His bridge appears to float above the water lilies without footing.

Similarly, Alfred Sisley’s “Mooring Lines” depicts a snowy riverbank crossed by a ship’s anchor lines, but the ship to which they are tied is not seen.

A viewer may also notice a preponderance of portraits wherein the subject’s back is turned. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in his scenes of Paris nightclubs, seems to prefer ladies’ dress bustles and ornate hats rather than their faces.

Mary Cassatt painted a lot of faces, including a rare pastel portrait of Mabel S. Simpkins (later Mrs. George Russell Agassiz), but when she became the subject of a portrait by her friend Edgar Degas, he sketched her in charcoal and pastels from the back. When the drawing was found in his studio after he died, nobody could identify the woman in the black dress holding an umbrella, poised inside the Louvre. Cassatt came forward and announced it was her.

“The impressionist were artists who loved to upend convention and present their work in contrast to academic painting,” said Thompson. “That was a way of doing something novel, but also to show you could represent a person’s character as much by their back as from their face.”

“The Impressionist’s Eye” is one-third works on paper, which are almost never exhibited because they are so vulnerable to light. Many works are displayed next to a related oil painting, either as preliminary studies or, in the case of Van Gogh’s “Haystacks,” an ink drawing made after the painting was finished.

“The opportunity to see those next to the paintings is very, very rare,” said Thompson. “It reminds us the artists like Degas and Cassatt and Berthe Morisot were artists who were incredibly versatile.  When we see them in traditional painting galleries, we see only one side of their work.”

In June, Thompson will swap out the fragile drawings with other works on paper to protect them and give the show a little refresh midway through the run.

At the end of the show is Renoir’s “The Great Bathers,” a large work of several nude women bathing in a river. The painting spent a year and a half being conserved. A discolored varnish that had been applied during conservation in the 1940s was removed, and the painting’s cracked surface, which caused slight cupping of the paint and distorted shadowing, was repaired.

The painting looks brighter, its skin tones softer, than it has for generations. It’s a kind of spring cleaning for the eye and a reviving breath of life.

“They seemed glad to get out themselves,” wrote Thoreau, again of his alfresco furniture. “As if unwilling to be brought in.”

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