French Impressionism From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is the NGV’s latest international exclusive. And, despite a lockdown-delayed opening, it’s the piece de resistance of the gallery’s 2021 program. Years in the making, it’s a result of close collaboration with the curators of the US museum, which holds one of the most prized collections of impressionist art in the world. More than 100 masterpieces – including 79 that have never been exhibited in Australia before – from the late 19th century have landed in Melbourne, and are now gracing the ground level gallery walls of NGV International.

Speaking to Broadsheet, Miranda Wallace – senior curator of international exhibition projects at the NGV – explains just how she and her team worked with the Museum of Fine Arts: “[They] came up with this incredibly generous list [of artworks] and they said we could borrow these works … [then] it was a process of us thinking about how we display it, how we interpret it, what stories we try to draw out.” That this exhibition has become a reality – especially during Covid times – is a major coup.

Impressionist artists are known for painting “en plein air”, or outdoors, to capture a scene’s vibrant colours and natural light – the changing conditions in nature. One of the first works visitors will encounter is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Woman with a parasol and small child on a sunlit hillside. Like most pieces in this show, it’s one you can easily find thousands of images of online. But when you get up close to the original, you’ll be struck by just how much detail is lost in its photography. Renoir’s thick, luscious strokes look almost wet – as if they were painted yesterday.

Other revered works include Claude Monet’s exquisite depiction of Venice at dusk, Grand Canal, Venice from 1908 (who would have thought a single, violet brushstroke could so evocatively indicate a point of darkness?). And a late Vincent van Gogh, the radiant hillside scene Houses at Auvers from 1890, painted just a few months before his suicide. There are also several larger-than-life pieces that are often considered French-impressionist poster children: Renoir’s joyous dancing couple in Dance at Bougival from 1883, and Edouard Manet’s dark and moody The Street Singer from 1862.

In true blockbuster style, though, French Impressionism ends with a climax. An oval-shaped room holds 16 iconic Monets, portraying poppy-covered fields, undulating meadows and breathtaking beach scenes. The room itself emulates the gallery he helped design for his famed Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

What’s also enjoyable about experiencing these artworks at the NGV is how sophisticated yet accessible the exhibition’s design is. Wallace says, “Our exhibition designers wanted to make it a contemporary look at impressionism, but one that’s sympathetic [to] the ideas of the original movement.” Instead of busy wallpapers or pastels, the walls are all refreshingly white (though there is one ethereal mirrored area where you feel engulfed by clouds). But interestingly, some of the most lively colours in the artworks are mirrored in the gallery’s giant two-tone carpets.

Soundscapes and light projections are used to highlight key themes explored by the impressionists. You hear birds chirping as light filters through imaginary tree leaves, and water gurgling as if moving downstream. These modern-day interventions set the scene – they’re brief immersive moments experienced as you walk from one space to the next, preparing you to take in the next group of artworks in all of their dreaminess.

Two female impressionists also feature in the exhibition. There’s Mary Cassatt, an American painter and printmaker who lived most of her life in France and was lifelong friends with fellow impressionist Edgar Degas (whose work you’ll also find here). And Berthe Morisot, with her spontaneous, loose depiction of White flowers in a Bowl from 1885. In a room filled with studio still lifes of flowers and fruit, Morisot’s relentless artistic pursuits are captured in the accompanying wall quote: “To catch the fleeting moment – anything, however small, a smile, a flower, a fruit – is an ambition still unfulfilled.”

French Impressionism highlights artists and their relationships, their shared ambition and mutual support – ideals that are reflected in our relationship with the National Gallery of Victoria,” Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, said in a statement. “This exhibition is a joyous celebration of our connections and a reminder that individuals and institutions thrive through reciprocity and generosity.”

French Impressionism From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston runs from June 25 to October 3 at NGV International. Tickets are $30 for adults and $10 for children.

ngv.vic.gov.au