11/30/2010 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


America is so vast that, living in Boston, I simply had no idea San Francisco was hosting such an exhibition. It took Thanksgiving and a visit to my wife's family to get me to Berkeley. From there we took the BART, and a Number 5 trolley bus from UN Plaza to Golden Gate Park/8th Avenue. And then, suddenly, there it was: the de Young Museum, hosting more than a hundred nineteenth-century French paintings, on loan from Paris, where the Musée d'Orsay is literally under wraps, undergoing renovations.

"Oh, my God!" as some are wont to say. "Am I glad I went!"

I've never really understood the term "Post-Impressionism" as more than a label for Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh. But there in San Francisco, in a sequence of museum gallery rooms, I began to appreciate the outlines of the brief, fifteen-year period in art history that changed forever the way we look at paintings: what we look for; what we admire; and what we connect with, at an emotional/sensual as well as intellectual level. Splitting into a profusion of schools and directions -- Neo-Impressionism, Pont Aven, Arles, Symbolism, Pointillistes, the Nabis, Synthetism, Intimisme, Decorative, etc - the Post-Impressionists built upon the revolution enacted by the Impressionists and laid the foundations for almost everything we see in contemporary painting more than a century later: color, shape, volume, subjectivity, ideas...
And how fascinating to see those pioneers of modernity following their diverging paths into the unknown! "Yes: brilliant! No: horrible!" we say to ourselves as we move through the rooms, agreeing or disagreeing with the audio guide. But always: "How courageous their experiments, how bold their artistic interpretations, how stunningly accessible their works -- though heaven knows, they were not considered so in their own day!" They take us, artist by artist, into their creative laboratories and lead us, painting by painting, into what was for them the future, and for us is the recent past - even the present.

There is not a single painting in the exhibition we would not want in our living room, bedroom, bathroom or study -- not because they are pretty, but because they are striking; not because they are decorative (though many are, deliberately so), but because each one says something to us: engages us in an unspoken dialogue. "See," says Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "this large, seated woman in blue, with a big, bright-yellow, sash-like petticoat or ruff, wrapped around her; she is struggling with her bodice, or at least something in front of her capacious white bosom, as she turns modestly away from us." Or are 'we,' in fact, the bald-headed man in dinner attire -- a stiff white shirt and waistcoat -- that's reflected in the mirror on the far wall: one of her 'clients' perhaps...?"

That was in 1895. Two years later, Vincent van Gogh stares straight at us, without mirrors or make-up, or even background objects: his bearded face and hair but a medley of thin, separate strips of paint, almost a mosaic, on the canvas: his beard orange, his cheeks gold, his shining forehead white, the pupils of his eyes black. With dark navy blue brushstrokes creating a deeper aura around his head, van Gogh's self-portrait -- his unsmiling, fierce, determined countenance - must be one of the most dazzling in the history of self-portraits: truly in-your-face....

Maurice Denis' black, outlined women, with their white, halo-like head scarves, watching the sailing regatta at Perros-Guirec; or the same artist's blocks of red, orange, brown and green in "Sunlight on the Terrace" in 1890; or Bonnard's portrait of pipe-smoking "Mr. and Mrs. Claude Terrrasse" in 1891, or Gauguin's chatting "Breton Peasant Women" of 1894; or Emile Bernard's Breton Women With Umbrellas" of 1892; or Cézanne's powerful portrait of Gustave Geffroy in his book-filled study of 1895 - these treasure of the late nineteenth century's finest painters will soon go back to Paris, never to return - at least, not in this magnificent one-hundred paintings collection of masterpieces. Even Seurat, whose famous "Sunday on the Grande Jatte" has never ceased to disappoint me because of its woodenness, is forgiven, in my eyes - for the exhibition has, instead, a number his studies, or études, for that fabled composition. And they are bewitching!

How is it possible, you ask yourself, that in a series of deft, flat, criss-crossing brushstrokes, Seurat was able to render a dark-dressed picnicker, sitting on the grass with his legs stretched out, knees raised -- a white shirted left arm emerging from his waistcoat to grasp those knees. And then a woman, lying beyond him on her side, so un-wooden: so captivatingly, hauntingly captured as they spend their time there by the river bank, so that they appear live at this very instant, even in repose? Or, in another study, two little girls standing face to face as if to start a game, while behind them stands a baby carriage, casting a slight shadow, and beneath it, two women in hats, sitting straight-backed on a rug, their legs tucked under them, the skirts of their long Victorian summer dresses spreading around them like pools in the sunlight.

If you love painting; if you'd like to be a retrospective witness to one of the great turning points in art history, go West young man or woman, and see this fabulous exhibition! Hardly a glimmer of social consciousness -- of pity, pain or even empathy for the downtrodden of the world at that time, for it's not that kind of historical representation. But as a chosen -- beautifully chosen -- collection of paintings that illustrate what the creative minds, hearts and paintbrushes of the greatest artists on earth from 1885 (the year of the last Impressionist exhibition) to 1900, it'll never be surpassed.

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay is at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, until January 18, 2011. It is necessary to book tickets at least 24 hours in advance, via the internet, to be sure to get in.

Nigel Hamilton is President of Biographers International Organization (BIO), and Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.