In 1868, young French painter Claude Monet braved a frosty winter day to capture the dazzling snowscape of Étretat, Normandy. He wore three overcoats and lit a brazier fire by his easel while he painted. The result was La pie [The magpie] – one of the Impressionist masterpieces now showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia for Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.

Impressionism was a new style of painting that emerged from France in the 1870s and 1880s. It emphasised small but visible brushstrokes, accurate depictions of natural light and everyday settings.

According to Tony Magnusson, the gallery’s curator of European, British and North American Art, the exhibition represents this groundbreaking development in modern art.

“Impressionists were all about honesty and bravery of painting in nature,” he says. “[The exhibition] is a story of intensifying chromatic brilliance in the context of modernism, and a new way of looking at the evolving colour palette and how [artists] embraced colour as the decades progressed.”

With more than 60 examples on display direct from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, one of the largest art museums in Europe, we asked Magnusson to guide us through this rare insight into the masters of Impressionism.

La pie, Claude Monet
[The magpie]

“The most important thing about this painting is the shadows are blue,” says Magnusson. “It was an outrage at the time. But if you see shadows in a snowscape, they are blue.” This use of colour was deemed revolutionary … It came from innovations and advances in synthetic pigments, which expanded the mobility of 19th Century artists outside the studio. Suddenly they could “go out into the open air, into the countryside, and paint in nature, capturing the fleeting aspects of life.”

Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne, Edouard Manet
[Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne]

After constant rejection and ridicule of his style, Manet’s first sale was to “legendary” art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1872, “a very important figure [who] put himself on the line to support the Impressionist painters,” says Magnusson. “He nearly bankrupted himself, but he had a huge amount of faith in the movement.” Manet’s work here is a study in black and light: “The full moon and the beautiful inky blue sky, the pricked-out stars, and this beautiful lustrous, luminous, pearlescent grey fog.”

La Seine et Notre Dame de Paris, Johan Barthold Jongkind
[The Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris]

“There’s this lovely luminous quality here, the work almost glows in the way that the light is reflected on the water,” says Magnusson. Jongkind’s work is typical of the transitionary period between Romantic and Impressionist, and Magnusson notes while it is more in the Realist genre, Jongkind is lauded as the forerunner to early Impressionism – and an important mentor to Monet.

La brouette, verger, Camille Pissarro
[The wheelbarrow, orchard]
c. 1881

Magnusson says Pissarro, a socialist – and later an anarchist – always “felt most at home among the working class people of rural France.” His works captured a “timelessness – man and animal in harmony on the landscape.” In La brouette, verger, Magnusson says the “vigorous, short brushstrokes are quite energetic, but paradoxically give the painting a sense of stillness.”

La bouée rouge, Paul Signac
[The red buoy]

“This is a very good example of the principle of colour division – using colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel and playing them off against each other,” says Magnusson. The French painter’s jewel-toned work, presented here alongside a selection of Neo-Impressionist works, is touted for the “dazzling, shimmering effect it produces in the eye.”

Gabrielle à la rose, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
[Gabrielle with a rose]

“There’s a real interiority to late Impressionism,” says Magnusson. “Not just about painting what’s in front of you, [but] capturing an interior mood.” Gabrielle harks back to a classical idea of female beauty. “Later in life, Renoir suffered from rheumatoid arthritis,” says Magnusson. “His hands were all gnarled. But there’s a remarkable way he painted [on Gabrielle à la rose] – the way he put the highlights on her garment, it appears to be just floating over her shoulder.”

Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay is now showing until July 29, 2018 at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Book tickets now.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Art Gallery of South Australia.