Published: December 9, 2003
Coming down the homestretch of the finest year of exhibitions in recent memory, the National Gallery of Art is offering two superb French historical survey shows and a fascinating one-man (and woman) display.
“The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting” on view through January 11, examines the development of paintings of everyday life in Eighteenth Century France. A complementary exhibition, “Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth Century France,” through February 24, explores one of the most innovative periods in the history of color printmaking. Of more recent vintage, “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier,” through January 18, comprises 50 likenesses created in 1909 by the Twentieth Century’s greatest artist of his companion of those days.
The genre painting extravaganza consists of 108 paintings by 27 artists, and it is a joy to behold. It is curated by Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings and curator of French paintings at the National Gallery, in collaboration with Colin B. Bailey, chief curator of The Frick Collection, and Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris. Exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada last fall, “The Age of Watteau” travels to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (February 8-May 9).
The genre painting and printmaking shows are set in the context of an Eighteenth Century France undergoing significant political, social, economic and cultural changes, stimulated by the moral principles of the Enlightenment. The works on view “formed a constantly changing mirror of Parisian social life and culture,” observes National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III.
Up to the Eighteenth Century, art in France was dominated by history painting — serious themes drawn from history, literature or the Bible — officially promoted by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and given privileged position in the art hierarchy of the day and exhibitions.
Reflecting the altered realities of French society and the arts, thought and painting shifted away from history painting and the religious and monarchial values of the prior century. In the new century the latter took the form of genre painting and innovative printmaking techniques.
Genre paintings chronicling daily life increased in standing and quality during the decade following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715. The hub of French society shifted from Versailles to Paris. A sophisticated Parisian elite, flourishing in intimate domestic settings — as opposed to the pomp and ceremony of the royal palace — became interested in fine art based on contemporary life and mores, real or imagined.
In the vanguard of genre painting in the age of Enlightenment was Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who broke with the tradition of Grand Manner painting to specialize in the “fête galante” — depictions of upscale couples in secluded parks engaged in flirtatious conversations and amorous advances. Watteau celebrated the newly relaxed social structure with finely composed vignettes of the stage, such as “Love in the French Theatre,” circa 1716; a forlorn clown strumming his guitar and serenading a would-be love in “Mezzetin,” circa 1718-20, and a portrait of a lovely adolescent on the brink of womanhood, “Iris (The Dance),” circa 1719.
One of the great draftsmen of his time, Francois Boucher (1703-1770) depicted amorous peasants, as in “Pastoral: The Vegetable Vendor,” circa 1735, views of pampered young women in opulent surroundings, as in “A Lady Fastening her Garter (La Toilette),” 1742, and a glimpse of an elegantly garbed young couple feeding each other grapes, in “Is He Thinking of Grapes?,” 1747.
While Boucher celebrated the privileged life and material splendors of the upper classes, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) focused on activities of less exalted folks such as servants and nursemaids, and children’s pastimes. Represented in the show by 13 canvases, many assembled on what Conisbee accurately described as “a wonderful wall of Chardins,” this master of the domestic scene is one of the big stars of the exhibition.
“The Kitchen Maid,” 1738, and “The Governess,” 1738, are sympathetic figural studies “below the stairs” that convey enigmatic, perhaps moral, messages. Also on view are two iconic Chardin masterworks: “Soap Bubbles,” circa 1735-40, and “The House of Cards” circa 1740, both from the National Gallery collection. These and other Chardin works consistently convey a Vermeer-like sobriety and tranquility.
In addition to genre paintings by well-known, acknowledged masters, the show includes works by highly accomplished artists who deserve to be better known today, such as Nicolas Lancret, Jean-Francois de Troy, Claude-Joseph Vernet and Jacques Sablet. They are reminders of what a wealth of talented painters France boasted in the Eighteenth Century.
The 412-page genre paintings catalog is illustrated with 186 color and 103 black and white reproductions. It contains detailed essays by Bailey, Barbara Gaehtgens, Thomas Gaehtgens, Martin Schieder, Katie Scott and Marianne Roland Michel. There are entries on 113 works, a bibliography and a complete list of genre paintings exhibited at Paris Salons, 1699-1789. Published by Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Canada, it is $49.95 (softcover).
“Colorful Impressions,” organized by National Gallery curator of Old Master drawings Margaret Morgan Grasselli, utilizes 115 color prints to illustrate how new techniques transformed printmaking in Eighteenth Century France. The first breakthrough came in the 1720s when German artist Jakob Christoffel Le Blon (1667-1741) found that full-spectrum color prints could be made from four basic inks — black, blue, red and yellow. His mezzotint portrait, “Louis XV,” 1739, based on a painting by Nicholas Blakey, one of the first full-color reproductions of a painting, reflects the quality of Le Blon’s pioneering efforts.
Energetic French printmakers built on Le Blon’s innovations with their own, creating increasingly elaborate techniques that sought, with considerable success, to replicate drawings executed in chalk, pastel, watercolor and gouache. Louis-Marin Bonnet (1736-1793) was a leader in applying new means to replicate chalk and pastel images. His “Head of a Young Woman Wearing a Cap,” before 1764, after a Greuze work, shows his achievement in chalk-manner prints, while his lovely “Tête de Flora (Head of Flora),” 1769, after Boucher, documents his ability to make pastel-like prints.
Among the pioneers in developing the “wash manner” technique that produced smooth, richly hued replicas of paintings, watercolors and gouaches, was Jean-François Janinet, (1752-1814), as demonstrated by “Villa Madama,” 1878. Janinet’s pupil Charles-Melchior Descourtist (1753-1820) created outstanding wash-manner prints such as “Noce de village (Village Wedding),” 1785.
Further advances in the last decades of the Eighteenth Century are documented in the exhibition by such masterworks as Janinet’s “A Woman Playing the Guitar,” 1788-89, and “La Promenade publicque,” 1792, and “Les Plaisirs paternels (Paternal Pleasures),” circa 1797, both by Philibert-Louis Debucourt (1755-1832).
As curator Grasselli observes, the new color prints, allowing the middle class to acquire affordable replicas of important works of art, were a great commercial success. “Because of the breadth of their imagery, the sheer numbers in which they were produced, and the wide audience for whom they were made, these prints convey the color and spirit of their times in a way that no other medium can match,” she says.
Grasselli, who brings both passion and knowledge to the subject, wrote much of the valuable exhibition catalog. The lavishly illustrated, 187-page volume includes informative chapters by collector Ivan E. Phillips and curators Judith C. Walsh, Lehua Foster and Kristel Smentek. One of the few books in English on the subject, it was published by the National Gallery in association with Lund Humphries, and sells for $65 (hardcover) and $45 (softcover).
For many art lovers just about any Pablo Picasso exhibition is cause for rejoicing, and the focused “Cubist Portraits” show at the National Gallery is no exception. It consists of more than 50 paintings, drawings and sculpture that Picasso (1881-1973) executed in 1909 of his mistress, Fernande Olivier. Both were 28 at the time.
Created during a period when the artist and Georges Braque were developing the vocabulary of cubism, this unprecedented assemblage offers insights into Picasso’s evolving artistic process. The images of Olivier, a professional model, represent transformation of her likeness through experiments in pictorial and sculptural form, “convulsive reformations of human physiognomy,” as the show’s curator puts it.
Highlights include initial works on paper, such as “Bust of a Woman” (private collection) and “Head of a Woman” (Art Institute of Chicago); increasingly abstract oil portraits like “Woman with Pears” (Museum of Modern Art) and “Nude in an Armchair” (private collection), and the final group of melancholy likenesses featuring the sculpture “Head of a Woman (Fernande),” shown in two plaster versions and a spectacular cast in bronze, recently acquired by the National Gallery.
This intriguing exhibition was organized by the National Gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Jeffrey Weiss, who wrote the 198-page catalog, accompanied by essays by art curators Valerie J. Fletcher and Kathryn A. Tuma. Published by the National Gallery in association with Princeton University Press, the book is $45 (hardcover) and $39.95 (softcover).
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