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Time and place 

High exhibition sets the mood of 19th-century Paris

Paris in the Age of Impressionism: Masterworks from the Musee d'Orsay lures viewers into the High with the promise of blockbuster-style Impressionism signaled by the replicas of Parisian streetlights that build expectations of kitschy Francophilia to come.

But Paris soon exceeds the limitations of its marketing. A handsome show arranged with sensitivity and intelligence, Paris offers a complex array of work, from turn-of-the-century tourist souvenirs to big money items by Manet and Degas. This eclectic clash of high and low turns out to be a strength for forcing viewers to consider the real lives and social milieu that gave rise to one of history's most famous epochs.

Alongside portraits of haughty aristocrats and balls, where incandescent pulses of light glitter from chandeliers and white shoulders in Jean Beraud's "A Party" (1878), are objects that convey the city's wealth even more effectively. It is the hair ornaments, perfume bottles and elaborate baubles of daily life on display in Paris that make this world more evocatively real, from Emile Galles' art nouveau vases decorated with flowers to Lucien Gaillard's improbably luxe hair ornaments like the opal-studded "Chrysanthemum Comb." Conveying prosperity's frivolous dimension, the objects are delight and whimsy made into material form.

But there is a canny progression in Paris from such plenitude to curatorial hints of an encroaching darkness.

On the tail end of such sumptuousness is a portrait of one "Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert" (1868). The portrait was a much-needed commission undertaken by the destitute Claude Monet as a means of supporting a wife and child on the way. Some aspects of the artist's life have not changed, but it is freshly astounding to imagine this cruel juxtaposition of the portraits of spectacular wealth and the rumbling stomachs of this aristocracy's invisible architects.

That hint of darkness at the margins of whimsy is confirmed in the next room, devoted to the absinthe-heads, homeless and lumpen workers who toiled like unseen gaffers to make this sparkling vision of Paris "work."

The true pathos of social inequality is conveyed in Alfred Stevens' bitter social critique "What Is Called Vagrancy" (1855). Combining the immediacy of photojournalism and the attentive choreography of oil painting, the image features a homeless mother whose ashen skin contrasts sharply with the robust, pink faces of the soldiers who lead her and her crying children away. Marie-Francois Firmin-Girard's "The Convalescents" (1861) is an equally raw portrait of life beyond the glow of empire building. It pictures a courtyard of soldiers wearing bandage-like stocking caps and dismal gray robes, talking and playing cards -- save a solitary soldier whose waxen complexion and downcast eyes suggest something other than a full recovery.

While glass flowers bloom in one world, an ant-like labor unfolds down below.

More shocking for their juxtaposition to the bustled ladies and aristocratic opulence are works like Edgar Degas' famously unromantic vision of the 19th century's junkie culture in "Absinthe" (1875-1876), or two frankly scandalous Toulouse-Lautrec images of the businesslike "toilette" of a faceless woman, and the defeated, insouciant posture of another whose sensuality and sprawled limbs suggest both Egon Schiele and a wildly modern fashion magazine languor.

In subsequent rooms of the High, this divide between rich and poor gives way to a picture of a more modern Paris defined by the leisurely pursuits of the new middle class. Paris shows the city's centrality as an art capital, but also its role as a modern city. Mass-production and architectural revisionist Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann's city plan designed for promenading and shopping signaled a new age of consumption symbolized in the cottage industry of Eiffel Tower souvenirs, also on display, which catered to the demands of this newly created middlebrow.

What comes through in Paris is a fresh view in what could have easily been a by-numbers art history study of dead painters. Paris seems more intent on fixing an impression of time and place and the cataclysmic mood of 19th-century Paris in the viewer's mind. On that count, it performs beautifully.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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