NO group show in history has become more famous than the one staged in 1874 in the vacated Paris studios of Photographer Nadar. One look at the shocking works by such unknowns as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas and Cézanne, and the critics doubled up with laughter. In Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise, the critics found an epithet to pin on the upstarts: "impressionists."

But the raucous laughter echoed on to haunt the critics. Today these impressionist "palette scrapings," as they were derisively called, are among the most popular paintings of Western art. And their popularity commands a hefty price. The two new...

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