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Tracing lust and upheaval in Paris

Portland museum exhibit's 88 works point to the beginning of Modernism

Paris and the Countryside: Modern Life in Late-19th-Century France
At: Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, through Oct. 15. 207-775-6148,

PORTLAND -- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born a wealthy aristocrat, in line to become a count. But this poet of Paris nightlife excelled at slumming. After studying with academic painters, he mainly abandoned the high life for the sexy squalor of Paris's bars, dance halls, and brothels. He made his name designing posters that advertised the red headed dancer Jane Avril, the high-stepping May Milton, Aristide Bruant and his songs of the struggles of the city's poor. Who can resist them, aglow in the footlights, embodied in his beautiful, swooping, carefree lines?

For ``Paris and the Countryside: Modern Life in Late-19th-Century France" at the Portland Museum of Art, curator Carrie Haslett assembled 88 works that show 19th-century France and the societal upheavals that inspired the era's artistic upheavals. Toulouse-Lautrec's trajectory can be seen as representative of these changes. And his posters, which papered walls across Paris, are where the 19th-century art capital of Europe shines through most directly.

Paris was then experiencing momentous changes. Thousands were displaced as the medieval city was carved open to create signature parks and grand boulevards. The population doubled. Industry blossomed, new trains linked Paris to the countryside, and new technologies spawned photography, bicycles, and cars. At the end of the 1880s, the Eiffel Tower arose like an exclamation point.

Amidst all this newness, the paintings of classicized landscapes and frolicking goddesses by the French Academie des Beaux-Arts came to seem stuffy and stale. ``The true painter," the poet Charles Baudelaire announced, ``will be the one who can reveal the epic side of present-day life." Edouard Manet and the Impressionists took his words to heart, and focusing on idiosyncratic impressions of their environs and the pursuits of the financially ascendant middle class (who succeeded aristocrats, kings, and bishops as art's chief patrons), ushered in the beginning of Modernism.

The Portland show is a who's-who of the era: Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, Seurat, Cassatt, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Renoir. It is a sign of the triumph of the Modernist revolution that these once bumptious artists, at their best, now seem to please all of the people all of the time.

Camille Pissarro thrives in the urban bustle. Men unload steaming ships, traffic pours over a bridge across the Seine, and smoke churns from the towering chimney of a gasworks in ``The Great Bridge, Rouen" (1896). Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages hurry along ``The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning" (1897). His loose , energetic brushstrokes are attuned to the city's buzz and still seem fresh.

Here is a Paris of scrappy traveling circuses, outdoor vegetable markets, and bums shuffling down chilly , windswept streets at night. Edgar Degas renders his sturdy laundress pushing her iron in hot reds and pinks, all the edges blurry like a soft-focus photograph. In Eugene-Samuel Grasset's striking 1897 lithograph, a green-faced addict in slip and stockings jabs a needle full of morphine into her bare thigh.

It was a Paris of lusts. In Jean-Louis Forain's painting, the wall text explains, ``an older man, of obvious wealth, stands behind a young ballerina he is trying to seduce." Vincent van Gogh paints ``a woman who worked as a waitress as well as a prostitute." Winslow Homer depicts the Jardin Mabille, a club ``known for its exuberant dancing by professionals and visitors alike, and for the loose women who frequented it."

Claude Monet fled to the pastoral countryside. His 1869 canvas ``The Seine at Bougival" shows his lover holding the hand of their young son as they walk across a bridge. Monet is acutely sensitive to the long shadows and raking late daylight. His broken brushstrokes suggest the rustle of the trees, the sparkling river, the scudding clouds. He exemplifies how the Impressionist attention to paint and process augured the painterly abstraction of 20th-century Modernism.

A guilty pleasure of the show is James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot's paintings from the 1880s celebrating Parisian women. He paints the scene in a realistic academic manner, chockablock with vivid details, that brings to mind Norman Rockwell if Rockwell painted corseted society ladies and monacled gentlemen. In ``Political Woman," a white-haired gent leads his young date, outfitted in a smashing pink ruffled gown, into the throng at a fancy soiree. Men turn to ogle and whisper. You can practically hear them.

There is a movement afoot to reclaim academic painting, much of which is good campy fun. But I soon grow bored of Tissot's beautiful, vacuous world. Give me the shadowy, seedy, complicated pulp stuff; give me something like, say, Toulouse-Lautrec.

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