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This is an Impressionism exhibition that wants visitors to rethink their image of those painters as purveyors of misty landscapes and brazen bathers

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Claude Monet's Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877.Art Institute of Chicago/ Art Resource, NY

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new Impressionism show begins in a train station. The exhibition designers have deftly evoked the vault of a 19th-century railway terminus by the simple means of an arched metal armature, a backlit clerestory and a soundtrack of bustling noises. At the back of this enticing entry hangs a small painting; Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, an 1877 oil by Claude Monet, is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago and serves as the exhibition’s signature image. It is the only one of Monet’s famed railway views in the show. Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and More is an art exhibition that is heavy on concept and light on famous paintings.

Those expecting that something with Impressionism in the title will offer a pleasant stroll through familiar works by celebrated names are going to be disappointed, but there are other significant strengths to this multimedia collection, devoted to images of bridges, factories and workers created by some Impressionists and many other late-19th-century French artists. Forget about gardens, seasides and poppy fields; discard bathers, drinkers or dancers; this is supposed to be the masters of plein air with some soot and smog in the atmosphere.

Because a century and a half separates us from the Impressionists, we tend to see their works as either bucolic or urbane, and we are especially impressed by their ability to paint light. Yet, in their day, their spontaneity was considered radical, and their working-class subjects shocking. Whether it is looking at the actual Impressionists or their contemporaries and heirs, this show aims to challenge the pretty preconceptions.

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James Tissot's La Demoiselle de magasin (Shop Girl), c. 1883-1885.Gift from Corporations' Subscription Fund / Art Gallery of Ontario

Take, for example, the second introductory piece, which is from the AGO’s own collection – The Shop Girl by James Tissot, that cheerful society painter. It shows a slim young woman in a tidy black gown holding opening the door of a fashionable boutique in one hand and offering some pink paper parcels in the other, as though the viewer were a satisfied client just leaving the premises. In the age of online shopping, the painting reads as nostalgic and saccharine, but to AGO curator Caroline Shields, a new hire who pitched this show to the gallery in her job interview and then got it open in a mere 14 months, this is a picture of modernism. In Paris in 1883, the glittering shopping experience was a new one, made possible by plate-glass windows, electric light and the broad boulevards created by slum clearances.

Ms. Shields wants to pull the veil of time off the Impressionists and their contemporaries to reveal them as figures deeply enmeshed in their own era of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Perhaps in her revisionist desire to depict the Impressionists as painters of work, she overemphasizes how much we define them narrowly as painters of leisure – mainly, they are famous for their landscapes and forays into the demimonde – but her historical and social approach does produce some satisfying encounters and startling juxtapositions.

The prize room in this expansive show, featuring more than 100 works, is anchored by Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe from 1876, on loan from a private Swiss collection. A large and disconcerting oil painting, it shows the heavy iron structure of the bridge looming over both a fashionable couple strolling along and a loitering worker staring down into the rail yard below. Caillebotte showed with the Impressionists, but his realism set him apart stylistically; this scene is depicted in a uniform and unforgiving sunlight. An augmented-reality program tucked behind the painting analyzes its use of perspective on a computer screen and explains why it feels so unusual. Caillebotte has mixed three different viewpoints to make the bridge appear bigger and the new Paris apartment buildings in the background appear nearer. Meanwhile, the couple are oddly separated from each other, with the man walking several steps ahead.

The image captures the unsettling nature of the urban experiment that famed 19th-century planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann had visited upon Paris as he razed medieval streets, laid out the boulevards and constructed apartment blocks. Today, tourists worship Haussmann’s Paris, but the gentrification may not have been particularly pleasant for that displaced worker staring off the bridge. (The comparison with the rapid growth of contemporary Toronto is one the AGO makes explicit later in the show with an education station where the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity to the artists of the day, is placed alongside the CN Tower, and younger visitors are encouraged to offer their thoughts on urbanization.)

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Maximilien Luce's Factory in the Moonlight, 1898.Museo Nacional Thyssen- Bornemis/Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

The Caillebotte is merely the pièce de résistance in this section: The same room contains a fabulous 1903 painting by the lesser-known post-Impressionist Henri Ottmann, The Luxembourg Station in Brussels. Visibly influenced by the tilted perspective of Japanese prints, Ottmann depicts the tracks leading into the terminus as a rising grey foreground with trains, buildings and smoke merely filling in the upper portion of the picture. And then, very cleverly, the exhibition includes a video of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the brief film by Auguste and Louis Lumière in which passengers totter toward the arriving train. Shown in the Lumières’ first exhibition of moving pictures to a small audience in 1895, it is a monument of cinema history. Nearby, there is a display case full of maps and guides to Paris, including the famous Baedeker guidebooks – the railways launched middle- and working-class tourism.

That is this exhibition’s broad social approach at its most impressive. In a room about factories, on the other hand, the mix seems to highlight the paucity of great paintings on display. Here, minor landscapes by Monet, Camille Pissarro and Caillebotte seem hesitant in their inclusion of smokestacks on the horizon, while the one van Gogh is particularly disappointing, a dutiful field and sky bisected by a line of fussy buildings. Meanwhile, attempts by the pointillist Maximilien Luce to lionize the working class feel decorative and static. In this context, the famed Lumière film Exiting the Factory (“no horse” version), showing workers pouring out of the gates of the Lumière family’s photography plant, reads more as an indictment of the paintings than a stroke of multidisciplinary genius. It is by far the most important artwork in the room.

Perhaps it is testament to the strength of Ms. Shields’s argument that the viewer can almost name the absent paintings that would magnificently bolster it: more of Monet’s railways, one of Pissarro’s views of the Boulevard Montmartre (he is represented by only one cityscape) and Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, a powerful painting of workers sanding a wooden floor. It would play so nicely off a strong piece in the show by Edgar Degas, a depiction of a laundress ironing a white dress shirt.

But the celebrated masterworks are not always able or willing to travel, and the exhibition does redeem itself as it leaves Paris but returns to Monet. Late in life, after all those landscapes and lilypads, he travelled to London in 1902 to capture the effects of smog and smoke. The show concludes with an impressive trio, hanging the AGO’s own Charing Cross Bridge, Fog alongside a view of the same spot from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and McMaster University’s Waterloo Bridge. By this point, the viewer should grasp that these spectacularly well-observed effects of light and colour are caused by industrial pollution.

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Camille Pissarro's Usine Près Pointoise (Factory Near Pontoise), 1873.David Stansbury/Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts

Setting aside the practical difficulties of securing big loans, there are excellent precedents for mixing styles and media, and juxtaposing canonical masters with historical oddities. When it opened in 1986, Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, itself housed beneath the vault of a historic train station, reinserted the art of the academic salons back into a 19th-century art history dominated by the Impressionists’ triumphant march toward modernism. The academic and society painters have experienced a strong revival since, but still, you can’t look at a painting such as Jean-François Raffaëlli’s timid Place de la Trinité and not conclude that its importance here is historic rather than artistic. The Impressionists’ bold experiment remains overwhelmingly popular with the public, and for a museum, any new take on Impressionism is a big box-office draw.

There is, however, a different way for the viewer to approach such an exhibition, which is to take its didactic narrative with a grain of salt and instead seek out the many delightful surprises it contains. Who knew that Tissot, the painter of the balls and the boulevards, also drew the soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War? And how sad that he drew them as sweetly as any shop girl.

This exhibition drew loans from dozens of other institutions, but what a welcome opportunity it represents to showcase some smaller works in the AGO’s own collection. There is a sweet taste of Art Nouveau printmaking offered by two Paris street scenes from Nabis artist Pierre Bonnard hanging alongside his colleague Édouard Vuillard’s image of a pastry shop, demonstrating both artists’ remarkable ability to maintain spontaneity and effects of light in the multistaged lithographic medium. Nearby, lovely prints by Henri Rivière, lent by the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, render scenes of the Eiffel Tower – pedestrians at its base; workers on its armature – as though they were Japanese ukiyo-e. And appreciate a fine curatorial achievement in the juxtaposition of two views by Alfred Sisley of the beach and bridge at Saint-Mammès, one from the AGO collection showing the spot under grey weather, the other a sunny day courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Yes, there is plenty to see and admire here. This is an Impressionism exhibition that wants visitors to rethink their image of those painters as purveyors of misty landscapes and brazen bathers. Ironically, they may also wind up rethinking their image of 19th-century French art as the Impressionists’ exclusive territory.

Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and More is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until May 5.

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