Exhibition: Four Hundred Years of French Drawings

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on February 22, 2011

Press release from The Frick in Pittsburgh:

Storied Past: Four Centuries of French Drawings from the Blanton Museum of Art
The Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, 5 February — 17 April 2011
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas, Austin, 18 September — 31 December 2011
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, 28 May — 24 August 2014

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, "The Arms of a Girl Holding a Bird," red chalk on cream paper, ca. 1765 (Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas)

Composed of 56 drawings made between 1500 and 1900, this exhibition chronicles the full range of artistic uses of the medium, from quick sketches to finished compositional studies, to drawing as an end in itself. The Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin has organized the exhibition from their permanent collection, which was supplemented a bit more than a decade ago by a large gift of drawings. The French drawings from this gift had not received systematic academic study, nor had most of them been published. Especially rich in 17th- and 18th-century drawings, the exhibition illustrates the rise to dominance of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture as one of the most dominant cultural and political institutions in Europe. The exhibition includes works by François Boucher (1703–1770), Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), and Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743), among others, with the nineteenth century represented by choice sheets from François-Marius Granet (1777–1849), Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867), Jean Forain (1852–1931), Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859–1923), and others who reflect shifts in the approach to drawing
in the modern era.

Exhibition catalogue, ISBN: 9781555953560, $65

At the Frick, the exhibition will find a perfect counterpart in the museum’s permanent collection, which visitors will enter as they exit the traveling drawings show. Paintings by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766), Lancret (1690–1743), Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695–1736), Boucher, Hubert Robert (1733–1808), and Nicolas-Bernard Lepicié (1735–1784), will be displayed with examples of decorative arts from the period, which will provide for a richer understanding of the 18th century in particular. . . .

The exhibition begins in a period of transition from the mannerism of the late Renaissance to the Baroque period. Two sheets showing designs for a powder flask made by an artist associated with the School of Fontainebleau show the sophisticated sense of decoration that prevailed among artists working around the court of Francis I. Two drawings attributed to seminal printmaker Jacques Callot (1592–1635) and his circle date to the period he spent in Florence, and show his interest in melding his observations of life around him into his expressive and inventive finished compositions. The fluid chalk Study of a Man with a Turban, c. 1617, attributed to Callot, is characteristic of his elegant figures and displays a masterful ability at controlling light and shade and swiftly capturing the spirit of a figure, as well as its contours.

The Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded in 1648. Modeled on Italian examples, the Académie provided training for and official recognition of artists, and allowed for artists to categorize themselves more highly than craftsman or tradespeople. Instruction at the Académie was based on a combination of lectures and studio classes. By the 1680s the Académie royale was an extremely influential organization, with well-established rules, a code of practice, lectures, regular competitions and prizes, exhibitions, and life-drawing-classes. The Académie, like those in Italy, considered drawing a fundamental part of the training of an artist and a necessary skill for a successful painter. Engrained in the academic system was a hierarchy of importance with history painting (narrative painting of religious, classical or mythological subject matter) being the most important, followed by portraiture, genre, landscape, and still-life painting. As the exhibition progresses through the Baroque period, examples of typical classical, mythological and religious subjects are prevalent, featuring an annunciation by Michel Dorigny (1616–1665) and a fascinating Elevation of the Cross attributed to Raymond LaFage (1656–1684). Religious and mythological subjects, along with the occasional classical landscape, dominate for about 50 years, until the emergence of the Rococo.

The style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) is represented in this exhibition by Landscape in a Venetian Manner, c. 1715–1716 (circle of Watteau). Watteau is best known for his fêtes galantes, a term invented by the Académie in 1717 to describe the artist’s variation on the traditional theme of outdoor feasts. This drawing depicts the type of classicized, pastoral setting that might have been populated by fashionable couples in one of Watteau’s finished paintings. The artist kept bound albums of his landscape drawings—some made from nature and others copied from earlier artists—which he later incorporated into his painted compositions. This drawing exhibits the distinctive featherlike touch and delicacy of Watteau that suggests life’s fragility and transience. The drawings of the Rococo period have exceptional crossover in artists and subject matter with the permanent collection at the Frick, both collections include Watteau’s contemporary Lancret, as well as Jean-Marc Nattier and Boucher, and demonstrate the period’s interest in portraiture, allegory, mythology, and idealized landscapes. The favorite painter of Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, Boucher is represented by two drawings in this exhibition. Mucius Scaevola Putting His Hand in the Fire, c. 1726–1728, an early drawing, shows the influence of his teacher, François Le Moyne (1688–1737), whose work is also included in the exhibition. A later sheet by Boucher, Juno Commanding Aeolus to Unleash the Winds, 1769, is executed in a markedly different style than the earlier drawing and was made in preparation for a painting now in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The neoclassical period is exemplified by Granet, who studied in the studio of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) along with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). Granet traveled to Italy early in the 19th century and there developed a market for his works focusing on church interiors, ruins, and monuments. His drawing Monks Entering a Cloister, c. 1802–1819, shows his fascination with the atmosphere of classical architecture, and his typical skill at employing dramatic light effects.

By the mid-19th century, the hold of academic training on the art world began to weaken, and the lure of Italy as the land of both ideal landscape and ideal architecture collapsed as younger artists, like Théodore Rousseau, began to find deeper meaning in creating images of their own landscape.  Rousseau’s small charcoal drawing on pink paper A Marshy River Landscape, c. 1845, illustrates his interest in responding directly to nature. The decidedly unpicturesque view of scrubby growth and wintry trees growing alongside a chill and grey looking river bordered by swampy land, has his characteristic manner of close observation combined with sketchy, more poetic passages. The pink paper and the use of white chalk on the horizon create an effect of either sunrise or sunset, and an atmosphere of sublimity and transcendence.

As the exhibition concludes at the cusp of the 20th century we see artists exploring a variety of more moderns subjects—from the late realism of Workers Loading Ballast by Frédéric Jacque (1859–1931), to the more academic and conservative orientalism of Alexandre-Louis Leloir (1843–1884) and his Moroccan Girl Playing a Stringed Instrument, 1875, to the graphic sensibility employed by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen in preparatory drawings for his famous lithographs.

Catalogue: Cheryl K. Snay, Jonathan Bober, and Kenneth M. Grant, Storied Past: Four Centuries of French Drawings from the Blanton Museum of Art (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2011), 160 pages, ISBN: 9781555953560, $65.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Morris, The Frick Pittsburgh. The Frick Pittsburgh said: Our current exhibition, Storied Past, is featured on the Enfilade (art history newsletter) website. http://fb.me/LheutJAF […]

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