Exhibition | From Alcove to Barricades, From Fragonard to David
Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Academy Figure of a Nude Man Seated, Resting on his Left Arm, 1789, black chalk with stumping and white chalk heightenings on brown paper, 46.8 × 60.7 cm (Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / photo Thierry Ollivier)
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Now on view at the Fondation Custodia:
From Alcove to Barricades, From Fragonard to David: Drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts
De l’alcôve aux barricades, De Fragonard à David: Dessins de l’École des Beaux-Arts
Fondation Custodia, Paris, 15 October 2016 — 8 January 2017
Curated by Emmanuelle Brugerolles
Renowned for its precious drawings collection, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris collaborates with the Fondation Custodia in the context of its Bicentennial celebration, presenting this autumn at 121 rue de Lille one of the most glorious components of its collections. With 145 drawings, the exhibition From Alcove to Barricades presents an ambitious historical survey of art in the second half of the 18th century.
The selected works cast light on a period of historical as well as artistic turmoil. From the last decades of the reign of Louis XV (1715–1774) to the close of the revolutionary period (1789–1799), we observe the transition from a monarchy to the Republic: a world that shifts from the space of the court occupied by the nobility to that of the city where the notion of citizenship prevails. Following suit, the arts pass through multiple transformations. This process was long considered a clear break between two opposing styles: rocaille (or rococo)—defined at the time as a feminine style owing to its arabesques, whims and at times extravagance—and neoclassicism, a masculine style whose noble simplicity is inspired by the Antique.
Arranged according to seven thematic chapters—academic training, Roman sojourn, genre scenes, history painting, landscape in France, architectural drawing, and decorative arts—the exhibition reveals a more complex situation.
The great number of masterpieces assembled here for the first time evoke this diversity of styles and approaches. They also enable us to follow the careers of the artists who played a role in these developments. We discover them during their training at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in their large-format nude studies after live models and drawings done for the competition for a Tête d’expression (a face depicting an emotion). A number of awards established in the second half of the 18th century, aimed at inspiring emulation among the Academy’s pupils in order to regenerate the arts, offered young artists opportunities to gain recognition.
We then follow these draughtsmen to Palazzo Mancini, the seat of the Académie de France in Rome, where they were pensionnaires. Whether copies of ancient and modern masters or views of classical ruins, gardens and recently discovered sites, the Beaux-Arts sheets reveal the motifs that impressed French artists during their stay in Italy.
On their return to France we see these artists obtain official recognition through important State commissions and trying to satisfy the changing taste of connoisseurs. Employing the strategies of history painting—expressive intensity, narrative clarity and theatrical layout—Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) renews the genre scene, evoking everyday dramas in moralising tones. His art, admired by the public of the Salon and Denis Diderot, is illustrated in the exhibition by a number of drawings.
Ranging from the scenes à la grecque by Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809) to the large neoclassical compositions by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) that inspired an entire generation of painters, the drawings shown in the next section allow us to follow the evolution of history painting as it gradually leaves behind amorous and sensual mythological subjects to explore heroic scenes drawn from ancient history. Indeed, since the mid-18th century rocaille art was highly criticised by scholars, such as the German art historian Winckelmann, and members of the artistic community. The Academy sought to resume ties with the Grand Genre by proposing Antiquity as the model to follow, as it had been in Poussin’s day.
Whether impressive designs—sometimes several metres long—sketched for the competitions organised by the Académie royale d’architecture, or inventions of imaginary buildings in the manner of Piranesi’s capricci, most of the works that introduce the sixth chapter of the exhibition are sheer graphic elaborations. They attest to the autonomy of architectural drawing in the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of a new form of urban planning around public buildings that offered citizens a richer social and cultural life.
In the exhibition’s final section, devoted to the decorative arts, many drawings are preparatory for engravings forming collections of models, a flourishing genre at the time, while others were used directly to make furniture or ornaments. Through these works we can measure the influence of classical art in the evolution of the repertory of decorative motifs. Although characterised by a return to the straight line and a certain restraint, neoclassicism remained open to the lasting taste for the pleasing and the exotic, the legacy of the rocaille style.
From academic exercises to large-format preparatory studies for paintings, sculpture, furniture and architecture, these drawings thus encompass all the arts. They place us at the heart of the artistic practices and creative processes prevalent in a society undergoing profound transformations.
Emmanuelle Brugerolles, ed., De l’alcôve aux barricades, De Fragonard à David: Dessins de l’École des Beaux-Arts (Paris: Beaux-Arts de Paris éditions, 2016), 400 pages, ISBN: 978 2840564904, 39€.
Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, Sepulcral monument: Section of the overall monument and elevation of the central pyramid, 1785, pen and black ink, grey wash, 76.5 x 275 cm (Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris)