James Fen­ton

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Amer­ica Col­lects Eigh­teenth Cen­tury French Paint­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,

May 21–Au­gust 20, 2017. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Yuriko Jack­all and oth­ers. Na­tional Gallery of Art/Lund Humphries, 332 pp., $69.99

In the lat­ter part of the 1820s, the novelist James Fen­i­more Cooper was in Paris, ob­serv­ing French so­ci­ety and med­i­tat­ing on the les­sons to be learned from it by the United States. In one sur­pris­ing segue from his book Glean­ings in Europe: France (1837), he rec­om­mends the ex­pen­di­ture of thirty or forty mil­lion dol­lars on a navy to se­cure “our na­tional rights” and, in the same sen­tence,

to ap­pro­pri­ate, at once, a mil­lion to the for­ma­tion of a Na­tional Gallery, in which copies of the an­tique, an­tiques them­selves, pic­tures, bronzes, arabesques, and other mod­els of true taste, might be col­lected, be­fore which the young as­pi­rants for fame might study, and with which be­come im­bued, as the pre­lim­i­nary step to an in­fu­sion of their mer­its into so­ci­ety.

He was quick off the mark, in one sense, for Bri­tain had opened its own Na­tional Gallery only a cou­ple of years be­fore. Other­wise, though, he was well ahead of his time, for the kind of com­pre­hen­sive mu­seum he de­scribed, with its mis­sion to im­prove taste in the fine arts as a way of pro­mot­ing better man­u­fac­tur­ing, closely re­sem­bled what was launched in Lon­don in 1852 as the Mu­seum of Man­u­fac­tures, be­com­ing even­tu­ally the much-im­i­tated Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum. Cooper had looked at French man­u­fac­tur­ing and seen a pro­found in­flu­ence of the arts of de­sign on ev­ery­thing from bronzes to rib­bons and chintz. Amer­ica needed to cul­ti­vate the fine arts:

Of what avails our beau­ti­ful glass, un­less we know how to cut it; or of what great ad­van­tage, in the strife of in­dus­try, will be even the skil­ful glass-cut­ter, should he not also be the taste­ful glass-cut­ter. . . . We beat all na­tions in the fab­ri­ca­tion of com­mon un­stamped cot­tons. . . . But the mo­ment we at­tempt to print, or to med­dle with that part of the busi­ness which re­quires taste, we find our­selves in­fe­rior to the Euro­peans, whose forms we are com­pelled to imitate, and of course to re­ceive when no longer novel, and whose hues defy our art.

It is easy to for­get that this de­sire to im­prove the na­tion’s taste, and to ap­ply les­sons learned from the arts of the an­cien régime di­rectly to mod­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing, pro­vided the mo­ti­va­tion for the Amer­i­can in­ter­est in French paint­ing. Cooper would have been grat­i­fied, had he been able to visit the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum around 1910, to see pre­cisely the kind of ob­jects he had in mind (French eigh­teenth-cen­tury win­dow bolts, key­hole es­cutcheons, faucets and fur­ni­ture mounts in gilded bronze) on dis­play with fur­ni­ture and pan­el­ing and other forms of ar­chi­tec­tural sal­vage. “The re­dis­cov­ery of the art of the dif­fer­ent ‘Louis,’” wrote the art his­to­rian Bruno Pons, “oc­curred in the USA in a com­pre­hen­sive man­ner, paint­ing at the same time as sculp­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture at the same time as fur­ni­ture and ob­jets d’art.”

This is all the more strik­ing when one con­sid­ers how pro­found an an­tipa­thy there must have been for the li­cen­tious­ness and per­ceived fri­vol­ity of, say, Boucher or Frag­o­nard and their pa­trons. Pons quoted Fiske Kim­ball, the great author­ity on ro­coco art, to this ef­fect:

In Amer­ica the French art of the old regime has suf­fered from a prej­u­dice—even from many prej­u­dices. To the pu­ri­tan and the Quaker the very word French evoked a furtive shud­der. To the pro­fes­sional evan­ge­list, set­ting down the cathe­dral builders as de­luded Papists, and think­ing of Voltaire and Rousseau, it con­noted athe­ism and impi­ety. By the pro­fes­sional An­glo-Saxon, main­tain­ing con­trary to truth that the French have no word for “home,” French styles were con­ceived as for­mal and in­hos­pitable. By the pro­fes­sional pa­triot and demo­crat the old French monar­chy was con­ceived as the an­tithe­sis of lib­erty.

Af­ter this, open The Dec­o­ra­tion of Houses (1897) by Edith Whar­ton and the ar­chi­tect Og­den Cod­man Jr. at al­most any page, and you will find praise for the good sense and taste of the French un­der Louis XV–XVI, who, far from suf­fer­ing a for­mal and in­hos­pitable style, are pro­moted as hav­ing in­vented the first truly com­fort­able fur­ni­ture and in­te­ri­ors. Clients of the ex­act­ing Cod­man with plans to build homes on Fifth Av­enue or at New­port, Rhode Is­land, might meet up with their ar­chi­tect in Paris to be shown all the el­e­ments of their fu­ture in­te­rior. When Ethel Rhinelander King, widow of the eldest son of a fam­ily whose for­tune came from tea, silk, and real es­tate, needed a draw­ing room in New York in 1900, the Paris firm of Audrain

shipped the bois­eries, cor­nice mold­ings, par­quet floor, bolts of yel­low silk damask to be hung inside the wood pan­els (plus cur­tains and lam­bre­quins with their req­ui­site passe­menter­ies, bergères, fau­teuils, var­i­ous sizes of ta­bles, a chan­de­lier, wall sconces, Savon­nerie car­pet, and marble chim­ney­p­iece).

For all this, one had to wait. Even Ethel Rhinelander King would have had to wait for the ar­rival from Paris of a con­tremaître, or fore­man, also sup­plied by Audrain, who would come to su­per­vise the in­stal­la­tion of the room.

In this pe­riod, the taste for eigh­teen­th­cen­tury French paint­ing—now such a well-es­tab­lished cat­e­gory in the his­tory of art—was fairly recently de­vel­oped. One would not ex­pect a visi­tor to Paris such as Cooper in the 1820s or 1830s to have had much op­por­tu­nity to see and ad­mire, say, Wat­teau or Chardin or Frag­o­nard. The grand pri­vate houses of Paris that, be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion, had thrown open their doors to vis­i­tors were now ac­ces­si­ble mostly to a cir­cle of close friends.

As for the pain­ters of the an­cien régime, many of them were quite sim­ply de­spised. The draw­ing stu­dents in the Lou­vre sup­pos­edly used Wat­teau’s Em­barka­tion for Cythera for tar­get prac­tice with bread pel­lets. What they abused un­der the name “ro­coco” was the style of the era of Louis XV and XVI—in paint­ing the style of Wat­teau and Frag­o­nard. What they sup­ported was the style we as­so­ci­ate with Jac­ques Louis David in paint­ing and Canova in sculp­ture, what we now call “neo­clas­si­cism” but they re­ferred to as the “true” or “cor­rect” style.

In the mid­dle to later years of the cen­tury, that sit­u­a­tion was be­gin­ning to change through the ef­forts of pri­vate French col­lec­tors of no great means, but with enough dis­cern­ing en­thu­si­asm and pa­tience to comb through the junk shops and the port­fo­lios of the deal­ers. This was the tene­brous world of Dau­mier’s gaunt con­nois­seurs. This was the world of the Gon­court broth­ers, pow­er­fully evoked in the cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion “Amer­ica Col­lects Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury French Paint­ing” at Wash­ing­ton’s Na­tional Gallery by a pho­to­graph of Ed­mond de Gon­court at home, with his books and his draw­ings and doc­u­ments neatly sorted and tied up with rib­bons. It was the world of Louis La Caze, whose enor­mous be­quest of 583 paint­ings to the Lou­vre in 1869 in­cluded many eigh­teenth-cen­tury works, among them Wat­teau’s Pier­rot (Gilles). And it was the world in which Baude­laire in­cluded Wat­teau among his “guid­ing lights,” or phares, in a poem which names a se­lect list of the great. The Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence of eigh­teenth-cen­tury French paint­ings could hardly have got­ten off to a more dis­tin­guished start: in 1815, Joseph Bon­a­parte, elder brother of Napoleon, for­mer king of Naples and Si­cily, also for­mer king of Spain, ar­rived in New York with his art col­lec­tion and a li­brary of six thousand books. In due course Joseph set­tled at an es­tate called Point Breeze in Bor­den­town, New Jer­sey, where he took plea­sure in mak­ing his paint­ings avail­able both to vis­i­tors to his home and as loans to the Penn­syl­va­nia

Academy of the Fine Arts. Among works of fam­ily and mil­i­tary in­ter­est, there were also the spoils of his so­journ in Spain and grand French mytho­log­i­cal paint­ings of an erotic bent: CharlesJoseph Na­toire’s The Toi­let of Psy­che and Noël-Ni­co­las Coypel’s The Ab­duc­tion of Europa (see il­lus­tra­tion on page 31). In his cat­a­log es­say on the Joseph Bon­a­parte col­lec­tion, D. Dodge Thomp­son quotes a con­tem­po­rary ac­count, by “two re­spectable Quaker ladies,” of be­ing shown around Point Breeze by the Count of Survil­liers, as Joseph called him­self:

The walls were cov­ered with oil paint­ings, prin­ci­pally of young fe­males, with less cloth­ing than their orig­i­nals would have found agree­able in our cold cli­mate, and much less than we found agree­able when the count with­out cer­e­mony led us in from of them, and enu­mer­ated the beau­ties of the paint­ing with the air of an ac­com­plished amateur.

The Coypel alone, a riot of nu­dity, would have tested the broad­mind­ed­ness of the vis­i­tors. It was fol­lowed by Canova’s seminude marble statue of Joseph’s sis­ter, Paolina Borgh­ese, and Ti­tian’s vi­o­lent rape scene Tar­quin and Lu­cre­tia. The women were “vis­i­bly dis­com­fited.”

In due course Joseph re­turned to Europe, but he gave the Coypel to his friend Gen­eral Thomas Cad­walader, with whose fam­ily it re­mained un­til 1978, when it was ac­quired by the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art “with the kind as­sis­tance of John Cad­walader, Jr.”— an im­pres­sive link across the cen­turies. But for ev­i­dence of di­rect artis­tic in­flu­ence of Joseph’s col­lec­tion on Amer­i­can artists, one must turn to the ma­rine paint­ings of Claude-Joseph Ver­net and to the por­traits of Jac­ques-Louis David, in­clud­ing the lat­ter’s eques­trian portrait of Napoleon cross­ing the Alps, whose fame had been spread by means of en­grav­ings.

The Wash­ing­ton show brings to­gether sixty-eight paint­ings from forty-eight pub­lic col­lec­tions in the US. This means that the net is spread wide, and you would have to be ex­tremely well trav­eled to be ac­quainted with ev­ery­thing that is on of­fer. It would be fair to say that there isn’t a weak paint­ing on view, but not ev­ery artist is rep­re­sented as fully as his or her stature de­serves. The sin­gle Wat­teau, the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art’s The Per­fect Ac­cord, is beau­ti­ful and has been much copied over the years. Per­haps it is merely con­ven­tional to feel that there might have been a com­pan­ion or two. Sim­i­larly, the lone David, a portrait of Jac­ques-François Des­maisons from the Al­bright-Knox Art Gallery in Buf­falo, though at­trac­tive, is hard put to rep­re­sent all that David means, and the cat­a­log re­pro­duces two works from the Met alone that one imag­ines must at some stage have been on the wish list for the ex­hi­bi­tion—the great double portrait of Lavoisier and his wife, and The Death of Socrates. On the other hand, the Na­tional Gallery has been able to place its own great Boucher, The Birth of Venus, be­side its com­pan­ion piece from the Met, The Toi­lette of Venus, bring­ing the two works from the Mar­quise de Pom­padour’s ap­parte­ment des bains (her bath­room) back to­gether. Boucher and Frag­o­nard are the fa­vored sons of the show.

One of the great cu­riosi­ties on view is Joseph Du­creux’s Le Dis­cret, a self­por­trait in which the artist raises a fin­ger to his lips, urg­ing si­lence. This comes from the Spencer Mu­seum of Art, the for­mer Univer­sity of Kansas Mu­seum. As Su­san Earle in­forms us in her cat­a­log es­say, Du­creux had been first pain­ter to the queen, Marie-An­toinette, un­til the Rev­o­lu­tion. There fol­lowed a pe­riod in which, pre­sum­ably short of sit­ters, he pro­duced a series of self­por­traits show­ing him­self “laugh­ing, cry­ing, point­ing de­ri­sively, or yawn­ing.” This last men­tioned—in which the artist yawns and stretches—is in the Getty. It is the only other paint­ing by Du­creux in an Amer­i­can mu­seum, and, like the Kansas work, the im­age is also known through prints. Th­ese works ap­pear to be, in paint­ing, the equiv­a­lent of Franz Xaver Messer­schmidt’s in sculp­ture—bravura ex­er­cises in phys­iog­nomy (but per­haps with­out the hint of lu­nacy in Messer­schmidt). Du­creux him­self called them “paint­ings of char­ac­ter which prove that cer­tain pain­ters of por­traits can paint his­tory.” No doubt that was the orig­i­nal im­pe­tus. One would dearly like to see the whole series, as one can see al­most the whole Messer­schmidt series in Vi­enna. For they seem to es­tab­lish an in­ti­macy and pri­vacy, al­most, that have wan­dered very far from the paint­ing of his­tory. The cat­a­log tells us some­thing about the young mu­seum di­rec­tor, fresh from his Ph.D. at Har­vard, who made this un­usual pur­chase in 1951 for $600. His name was John Maxon (1916–1977), and he was clearly a gifted pur­chaser of works of art—he bought a lime­wood sculp­ture by Til­man Riemen­schnei­der the next year. But the cat­a­log does not tell us whether he was re­spon­si­ble for trans­fer­ring the paint­ing from its orig­i­nal can­vas to an alu­minum panel, thereby iron­ing it flat—a process once in vogue but now much de­plored among con­ser­va­tors. One of the guid­ing pur­suits of col­lec­tors of French art was the search for items with a royal con­nec­tion, in­clud­ing pre­em­i­nently a con­nec­tion to royal mis­tresses. A portrait by François-Hu­bert Drouais, sold by the firm of Wilden­stein as Madame du Barry Play­ing the Gui­tar, turns out to have had the wrong gen­der as­signed to it and is nowa­days firmly iden­ti­fied as Portrait of Car­los Fernando FITZJAMES-STUART, Mar­quess of Ja­maica. It says some­thing about Drouais’s sweetly am­bigu­ous (and repet­i­tive) phys­iog­nomies that the fu­ture duke could so long have been mis­taken for a royal mistress. The paint­ing hung in the four­teen-room Park Av­enue apart­ment of Eugenia Wood­ward Hitt, shown in a pho­to­graph from 1991 with its mir­rored in­te­rior and rich French fur­nish­ings. Mrs. Hitt, it ap­pears, was the kind of art col­lec­tor who knows when to stop: she stopped when she ran out of space. On her death in 1990, she be­queathed to the Birm­ing­ham Mu­seum of Art (Birm­ing­ham be­ing her home town) the con­tents of her apart­ment, amount­ing to some five hun­dred ob­jects. Two of the Drouais paint­ings in the show come from this be­quest.

In “Buy­ing against the Grain: Amer­i­can Col­lec­tions and French Neo­clas­si­cal Paint­ings,” Philippe Bordes re­minds us of the slow process by which David’s rep­u­ta­tion, and those of his many stu­dents, were re­vived and re­de­fined. The nine­teenth-cen­tury charge that his work was frigid was hard to re­fute, par­tic­u­larly as so many of the artist’s works were lan­guish­ing in ne­glect. Then, around the time of World War I, “paint­ings be­gan to cross the At­lantic em­bel­lished by an at­tri­bu­tion to [David], this most fa­mous pain­ter of his day.” Ed­ward Julius Ber­wind paid a sur­pris­ing $228,000 for what was de­scribed by René Gim­pel, the dealer, as the most beau­ti­ful David in the world. It was not by David, but by his pupil Marie-Guillem­ine Benoist; it is a portrait of Madame Philippe Panon Des­bas­sayns de Richemont and her son (now in the Met). But the at­tri­bu­tion of a ten­der and charm­ing de­pic­tion of mother­hood to the sup­pos­edly frigid David acted as a kind of re­but­tal. Here is a pas­sage from 1919 in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this mis­at­tributed work:

The fig­ure has a pu­rity of line which re­calls Greek art, but Greek art recre­ated in the flesh and spirit by a lover of form. When you com­pare this ac­com­plished work with the form­less and man­ner­is­tic English por­traits of the same pe­riod you do not hes­i­tate to rank David as the great­est master of plas­tic beauty. Its al­to­gether fem­i­nine se­duc­tion, the sil­very ra­di­a­tion which is­sues from its ex­quis­ite flesh tones, the sup­ple­ness and aban­don of the pose, com­bine to make a re­ally pic­turesque mas­ter­piece, stripped of all pedantry. This portrait is among the high­est ex­pres­sions of French art. How many such ex­am­ples of dis­ci­pline and free ef­fu­sion are there to rec­om­pense us in our own trou­bled epoch?

Fem­i­nine se­duc­tion, not male frigid­ity. Greek, yes, but Greek art recre­ated in flesh, not marble. Dis­ci­pline, yes, but then sup­ple­ness and aban­don. The re­marks to the detri­ment of English por­trai­ture are care­fully cho­sen to un­der­mine one of the great gen­res of tro­phy art of the time. The whole pas­sage can be seen as a plea to the lover of the ro­coco: con­trary to what you may have been told, it says, you can love David and the ro­coco, too. And what was meant by David, in this con­text, seems to have been any neo­clas­si­cal portrait of a pretty young girl in white, with a high waist­band. But still it had to be con­ceded that there was another side to David, seen in his ear­lier work:

If we an­a­lyze the first rev­e­la­tions of this Master, we will find them aca­demic, scholas­tic, but sus­tained by a cre­ative strength which is never aban­doned. There is, in the ef­fort that dom­i­nates his work, some­thing of fierce­ness which at­tains to a sto­ical power, power which is con­served by the read­ing of Plutarch, or the study of the Ro­mu­lus or the Bru­tus of an­tique stat­u­ary.

Aca­demic, yes, but fierce. Scholas­tic, yes, but sus­tained by cre­ative strength. Ro­man in­deed—who could deny it?—but this half-imag­ined David is a fierce Ro­man on the verge of trans­form­ing him­self into a sen­su­ous, fem­i­nine Greek. In 1931 the cu­ra­tor Bryson Bur­roughs was at pains to per­suade the Met to buy, for $18,000 (later re­duced), one of David’s most fa­mous com­po­si­tions, The Death of Socrates. David, he wrote,

is rec­og­nized as the first of the mod­ern school and as the founder of mod­ern art. No artist since the Re­nais­sance has had so last­ing an ef­fect as David has had; in­deed his in­flu­ence sur­vives to­day. A long-last­ing in­flu­ence is a tan­gi­ble proof of great­ness, as far as an his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tion like ours is con­cerned. This pic­ture is one of his most fa­mous works, the only one of his great com­po­si­tions, as far as I know, which re­mains still in pri­vate hands.... Th­ese elab­o­rate com­po­si­tions of his are not widely ap­pre­ci­ated to­day, which ac­counts for the low price of the Socrates, whereas his por­traits which he him­self re­garded as mere pas­times, are ea­gerly sought af­ter.

The first of the mod­ern school! The founder of mod­ern art! Claims no

doubt care­fully crafted to as­suage some ten­dency among the trustees, even if they leave us a lit­tle puz­zled to­day. (Puz­zled per­haps be­cause Bur­roughs is quot­ing in the 1930s a re­mark made by Delacroix in the 1860s—as if noth­ing in the world had changed in the in­terim.) The cu­ra­tor an­tic­i­pated a hos­tile pub­lic re­sponse, but he had well de­fined his “tan­gi­ble proof of great­ness.” And it is in­ter­est­ing to see, from Bordes’s ac­count, how much fur­ther work had to be done sim­ply to de­fine David’s oeu­vre and to weed out, or ac­cu­rately re­as­sign, many op­ti­mistic at­tri­bu­tions. We are re­minded too that the style known as “clas­si­cal re­vival” was soon to be called “neo­clas­si­cism” on the pub­li­ca­tion in 1940 of Gusto Neo­clas­sico by Mario Praz.

Ro­coco. Neo­clas­si­cism. The mod­ern school. What a dif­fer­ence such words make to the way we can be per­suaded to see.

Noël-Ni­co­las Coypel: The Ab­duc­tion of Europa, 1726–1727

Joseph Du­creux: Le Dis­cret, circa 1791

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