Light fantastique: Paris through the eyes of the impressionists

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From Monet to Degas, the luminosity of Paris has inspired countless artists. As the city celebrates 150 years of impressionism it’s still shining bright

Paris is called the City of Light, possibly because of its early adoption of gas street lighting. But that would not explain why, as I approach Gare du Nord on Eurostar during daytime, I experience a soft dazzle, similar to when I see a pebbly beach. This is not a meteorological phenomenon; the weather in Paris is only slightly better than London’s. Instead, the luminosity owes something to the buff or light-grey limestone of the older buildings (including the Sacré Coeur, rearing like a great ghost to my right), its pallor perpetuated by the whitewashed exteriors of newer buildings.

The light in Paris was a concern of the impressionists, the movement whose 150th anniversary is marked by the Musée d’Orsay’s forthcoming Inventing Impressionism exhibition. On 15 April 1874, a group of 31 artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir, “hungry for independence” (as the Musée d’Orsay website has it) from the strictures of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, staged their own exhibition. Inventing Impressionism will feature works from that show and others of the time: “Painted scenes of modern life, and landscapes sketched in the open air, in pale hues and with the lightest of touches.”

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