Published: September 6, 2011
Jean-Louis Forain is hardly a household word in America when it comes to name recognition of great artists. He is not well known like Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso. Yet the French consider Forain (1852‱931) one of the great French Impressionists. Currently on view at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens is “Forain: La Comédie Parisienne.” The exhibition is a collaboration between the Dixon and the Petit Palais of Paris. A total of 150 sketches, drawings, paintings unfold an encyclopedic collection that reveals a complex mind.
What sets this controversial artist apart was his ability to be an Impressionist while going beyond it. Like his mentor Edgar Degas (1834‱917), he painted the opera, the ballet, the racetrack and late Nineteenth Century Parisian café life on all social levels, ranging from the highest to the lowest segments of society. He participated in four Impressionist exhibitions. But then Forain became more interested in the reactions and machinations of the élégants, both backstage and seated in the audience.
Like Degas’ monotypes for “La Famille Cardinal,” “the lecherous, aristocratic gentlemen would come backstage to admire the adolescent ballerinas in their tutus, hoping for favors.”
Jean-Louis Forain was born at Reims, France’s champagne capital, in 1852. His family moved to Paris when he was eight. He preferred sketching at the Louvre to going to school. He went through a bohemian stage, living with French symbolists Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Before long, he was hanging out at the Café Guerbois and Le Café de la Nouvelle Athènes with the Impressionists, learning the techniques of color and light so vital to en plein air painting. But like his mentor Degas, he preferred observing and depicting all levels of society, reveling in political commentary and social satire. His incisive illustrations appeared regularly in Le Figaro and Le Monde .
Forain’s versatile work ranges from breathtakingly beautiful and fragile ladies (“Woman Walking on the Seashore,” 1885) to demimonde prostitutes standing in line for inspection (“The Client,” 1878). Forain became known as a political commentator, taking a strong stand against the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; he also went on record as being anti-Dreyfus with his biting oils, illustrations and drawings, often with captions beneath them. His lithographs and satirical drawings, published regularly, brought him fame and admiration throughout France.
Dixon Gallery and Gardens is at 4339 Park Avenue. For information, www.dixon.org or 901-761-5250.
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