Medieval to Monet: French Paintings in the Wadsworth Atheneum will be on view from October 19, 2012- January 27, 2013. It presents our extensive collection of French paintings. Acquired since 1898, these range over several centuries and include works by many of France’s leading artists. This is the first time that all of these works have been shown as a group, and it coincides with the publication of the new French painting catalogue, which is available in the Museum Shop. Drawings and pastels by many of the same artists are on view in the downstairs Morgan Galleries.
The Fifteenth to Seventeenth Century
This segment of the exhibition contains two examples from the fifteenth century, when France was still very much under the influence of Netherlandish traditions, exemplified in the detailed painting of religious subjects. In the seventeenth century, as France became a powerful kingdom, a more independent grand manner developed. Since it was a very Catholic country, governed often by cardinals, religious subjects remained important. Many of the leading artists, such as Poussin and Claude Lorrain, felt it necessary to visit and even settle in Rome, then the artistic capital of the world. But those who remained in France, like the Le Nain brothers, produced subjects of everyday life imbued with a deep spirituality.
The Eighteenth Century
Elegance, wit, and charm were the hallmarks of French art in the eighteenth century, known as the Rococo period. The Académie royal, which had been founded in 1648, continued to oversee the development and careers of artists. It presented, on a nearly annual basis, an exhibition of works by the leading masters and their pupils in the grand salon of the Louvre, and thus this exhibition—to which all young artists aspired over the next centuries—was known as “The Salon.” The Académie also maintained a hierarchy of the types of art. Still life and genre painting, as practiced by such artists as Chardin, Watteau, Lépicié, and Greuze, were not considered as highly as history painting. Even so, a great many works were devoted to aspects of love and seduction, as evidenced here in examples by Lagrenée, Boilly, and Trinquesse.
From the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth Century
This segment includes works from the last years of the French monarchy housed at Versailles, including a classic example of aristocratic portraiture, the Duchesse de Polignac by Vigée Le Brun. However, the French Revolution in 1789, marked by the execution of the king, and the emergence of a new, more democratic government, greatly affected art as well as society. A severe, neo-classical style was introduced by Jacques-Louis David and carried on by his talented student Ingres. The change in attitude and dress can be well observed in the works of Mayer and Gauffier. This rigid period, in turn, gave way to the Romantic era of the mid-nineteenth century, and excellent exemplars of its bold, passionate free use of paint and rich color are evident in the outstanding canvases by Géricault and Delacroix.
In the nineteenth century artists began to turn away from classical history and instead examine landscape. The distinctive aspects of the French countryside became a significant subject, first for Corot and then the members of the Barbizon School. These artists, such as Daubigny, Rousseau, and Dupré, studied nature in all its aspects. They in turn had a profound impact on such independent masters as Courbet and ultimately the Impressionists.
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
In opposition to the official, highly-finished academic style of painting by Bouguereau, Motte, Leroux, and many others, seen in the previous gallery, there arose in the later part of the nineteenth century a younger generation of painters with a very different approach. Chief among these were the Impressionists, who first showed together as a group in 1874. Their method employed a more direct rendering of nature and everyday life, often painted directly out of doors. The Atheneum is fortunate to have several masterpieces of this movement by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Cézanne. They in turn were succeeded by a diverse group of artists who were interested in both symbolic subjects and a flat patterning of form. These Post-Impressionists include Gauguin, Vuillard, and Bonnard.
The Salon Installation
In both Paris and London during the nineteenth century the great annual exhibitions by accepted artists were held in grand galleries or salons, installed in dense, multi-tiered hangings. This method of organization is therefore referred to as “Salon style.” The works considered of highest quality were hung “on the line” (at eye level), while large paintings could be visible even if “skied” (hung close to the ceiling). All varieties of subjects, from portraits to historical themes, and still lifes, were combined, and although artists often complained about the placement of their pictures, the system could be highly effective. It was adopted for many of the great private galleries in Europe and America. One of these was created here in Hartford during the 1860s by Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt in her mansion, Armsmear, located just a few blocks down Main Street from the Atheneum. When she died in 1905, her collection was bequeathed to the museum, and many of her paintings from that salon are now exhibited in this gallery.
Medieval to Monet is funded by Webster Bank [logo] with additional support from the Cheryl Chase and Stuart Bear Family Foundation and Dina Plapler and Earl McMahon. The associated education programs are supported by a grant from the Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation, Inc. The catalogue is supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
Support for the Wadsworth Atheneum is provided in part by the Greater Hartford Arts Council’s United Arts Campaign and the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development Office of the Arts, which also receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.