Show Of French Paintings From 1290 To 1920 Reopens Second-Floor Morgan Galleries
By SUSAN DUNNE
October 21, 2012
It's been a long time since the second floor of Morgan Great Hall at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art has been open to the public. However, it is now open — albeit temporarily — for an exhibit of 130 French paintings from the Atheneum's collection leading up to the early 20th century.
Most have been in storage for a long time. "It's nice to be in these grand galleries again, with all the natural light, refurbished, repainted. It's just lovely," said Eric Zafran, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Atheneum, and the curator of the show "Medieval to Monet." "The height of the ceilings give the paintings a grandeur that they deserve. They need a lot of breathing space."
The exhibit spans the 13th to the 20th centuries, so it naturally begins at the Apocalypse — a frequent, gloomy subject for medieval artists — and comes to a lighthearted close with scenes from late-19th and early-20th century Parisian nightlife and entertainers.
Despite the glut of legendary artists toward the end of the exhibit's timeline — Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir — Zafran said there is no specific "golden age" of French painting.
"It depends on who you talk to," he said. "If you love the 17th century, you'll say Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorrain. If you love rococo and Watteau and Bouchet, you'll say the 18th century. If you love impressionism, you'll say the 19th century. They're all golden in a certain way."
So the journey through time and art begins with two 13th-century paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations, "The Release of the Locusts from the Bottomless Pit" and "Birds Eating the Flesh of Men." A prettier image follows it chronologically, a icon-like depiction of Mary cradling the crucified Christ in her arms, from the late 15th century. Beside that is another 15th-century image of Mary, this one with the angel Gabriel inside a church.
"I like to see the first one, the Italian-influenced gold-ground, juxtaposed next to a more Renaissance depiction, which shows perspective in the church," Zafran said. "Behind Mary and the angel, you see the windows, you see the divine light."
The colorful centerpiece of the 16th century offerings are two paintings, of St. Ursula and St. Margaret. The works are as they appear, part of a series, renderings of beautiful young women with similar features, blue dresses and draped in red.
Large-scale works by Lorrain and Poussin hang near each other, showing that the 17th-century contemporaries had drastically different styles. "Both Poussin and Lorrain went to Italy to make their careers, but Lorrain (In "Landscape with St. George and the Dragon") paints a romantic countryside, Poussin painted a noble, tragic depiction of the crucifixion. The somber-colored Poussin painting, unfortunately, has become muddy and somewhat indistinct over time, while the Lorrain is still crisp and clear.
The 18th century begins with "The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine," from 1705-10, which is accompanied by a globe similar to the one depicted in François de Troy's painting. "Most French painting of this century centered on Versailles, but there were some satellite courts," Zafran said. "One of them was the Duchesse du Maine's. Here, she is dressed like a duchess, in very elegant clothes, but she is shown as a serious student."
Two more depiction of 18th-century French nobility — "they lived in such luxury you can see why the French Revolution happened" — are Louis-Roland Trinquiesse's "An Interior with a Lady, her Maid and a Gentleman" from 1776 and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun's "The Duchesse de Polignac Wearing a Straw Hat," a lovely portrait of Marie Antoinette's beautiful but spoiled best friend.
Constance Mayer, with Le Brun one of the only female artists in the show, welcomes the 19th century with a huge self-portrait from 1801. "The Entry into Paris of the Dauphin, later Charles V" is a historical painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who is best known as a portraitist. Zafran is especially pleased that the 19th century collection includes "The Village Forge" by the short-lived Théodore Géricault. "He loved horses, and we are so fortunate to have one of his horse paintings," he said. Zafran also pointed out two works by Eugène Delacroix, "the ultimate romantic master."
The impressionist artists emerge, actually, before the impressionist era itself begins. Edgar Degas' portraits and seascapes, made in his pre-impressionist days, are featured in the show, along with one of his great paintings of dancers.
Claude Monet's "The Beach at Trouville" can be seen near two other paintings of that northern French resort town, one by Eugène Boudin, one by Gustave Courbet.
"They have such different takes on it," said Zafran. "Monet is interested in the tourists and the sparkle. Courbet ignored that. You'd never know this was a popular, fashionable beach. The sailboat on the horizon is the only touch of human presence." The Boudin is more subdued than Monet's, with a clutch of fashionably dressed beachgoers but no boardwalk, no fluttering flags, no tidy, painted staircases. "The same beach, but a different beach scene," Zafran said.
Monet also is represented in the show by one of his iconic Water Lilies paintings, and also by a charming 1873 portrait of him by his friend, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who also painted a 1910 portrait of his wife holding a puppy named Bob.
The exhibit upstairs is accompanied by a downstairs collection, off the Morgan Great Hall, of pastels and gouaches — "a wash of color, the wow factor," Zafran said — and some 20th century drawings by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Jean Cocteau and Fernand Leger.
"MEDIEVAL TO MONET: FRENCH PAINTINGS IN THE WADSWORTH ATHENEUM" will be on exhibit through Jan. 27 in the second-floor Morgan Hall galleries at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford. Admission is $10, $8 seniors, $5 students, free to kids 12 and younger. Hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Details: www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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