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Works by many of the world’s most famous artists fill the museum’s galleries, through January.  

From now until January 28, you can visit the quaint cafés and elegant salons of fin-de-siècle Paris without leaving modern-day Milwaukee.

Over the weekend, the Milwaukee Art Museum welcomed audiences to its latest block-busting exhibition, “Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France.” The exhibition features 150 works made between about 1800 and 1960, by artists who spent at least part of their careers in France.

Woman After Her Bath

“Woman After Her Bath,” by Degas; Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum

Nearly all of the best-known French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are represented. Monet. Renoir. Cezanne. Degas. There’s even an etching by Vincent Van Gogh – the only one he ever created in his lifetime – that depicts the doctor who treated his mental illness during the final months of his life. Van Gogh committed suicide just two weeks after finishing the print.

Drawings, prints and other works on paper predominate. And the museum’s curators have wisely chosen to divide the MAM’s previously open, airy galleries into many smaller rooms, to reflect the more intimate scale of most of the works. You can lose yourself (figuratively – the exits are well marked!) in the winding corridors and gently lit alcoves, spending hours poring over quickly executed charcoal sketches and richly layered pastel drawings alike.

Moving from room to room, you become acquainted with the styles and movements on display, learning how Jacques Louis-David’s measured neoclassicist compositions gave way to the freer forms favored by Impressionists like Mary Cassatt (the only female painter represented in the exhibition), how Georges Seurat’s pointillist technique and interest in optics influenced Cubist painters like Pablo Picasso (11 of his works are in the show, including a sketch that was likely a study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection).

According to the museum’s curator, Britany Salsbury, “Degas to Picasso’ will give museum visitors the opportunity to experience modernism in the way that the artists themselves did: not as a single style or an organized movement, but as a process of exploration that began in Paris and connected generations, from Delacroix to Degas and Cezanne to Picasso.”

In this sense, the exhibition is as much a history lesson as an invitation to ogle the masterworks of French modernists, and it should appeal both to visitors looking for a primer on modern European art and those well-acquainted with the subject.

Gallery talks occur on select Tuesdays throughout the run of the exhibition: Nov. 14, Dec. 12 and Jan. 4. Catch one of them, then spend an hour or so sipping café au lait in Windhover Hall, pretending you’re people-watching in a nineteenth-century Parisian bistro, waiting to hear about the latest show at the Salon de Refusés.

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