From the Musée Fabre, Montpellier
7 Nov 2003—15 Feb 2004
French Paintings from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier is an exhibition of 84 outstanding masterpieces never before seen in this country. Covering three centuries of French art the exhibition features works by great artists such as Nicolas Poussin, Laurent de la Hyre, Simon Vouet, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. The exhibition brings together an exceptional array of iconic paintings covering all artistic movements from 1600 to 1900, including Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism. It represents the work of more than 55 of the greatest French painters working in every genre, from portraiture, religious and mythological subjects and landscapes to still lifes, and provides an unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy the brilliance and beauty of French art. The selection gives a comprehensive overview of French art, following its evolution from the highly sophisticated and classical art of Poussin in the early 17th century to the complete rethinking of painting by Courbet at the threshold of Impressionism in the second half of the 19th century.
The Musée Fabre in Montpellier, in the south of France, owes its name to its benefactor, François-Xavier Fabre, who was himself a successful painter and one of David’s most talented students. In a gift in 1825 and through a bequest on his death in 1837, he gave his own works as well as those of outstanding French artists such as Poussin, La Hyre, Vouet and Greuze. When the banker Antoine Valedau (1777–1836) died in Montpellier, his collection of old master paintings, including works by Greuze, which will be in the exhibition, was also bequested to the city of Montpellier. But perhaps the most important collection was given to the museum in 1868 by the passionate collector Alfred Bruyas, the son of a banker, who became an artist and collector of works by Delacroix, Rousseau, Corot and Courbet.
This exhibition’s thorough and well-balanced overview makes it evident that French art is, in contrast to Italian art, less the result of the cultural identity and economical wealth of individual provincial centres and more the mirror of the politics and power of the capital, Paris. The exhibition expands our understanding of French culture considerably, through refining our perception of French art from the Golden Age until the origins of Impressionism. It assembles a vast selection of breathtaking masterpieces such as Portrait of Alphonse Leroy by David and Portrait of Aspasia by Delacroix.
The 17th century: the invention of an official national style
This unique survey begins from the 17th century with a selection of works created under the reign of Louis XIII, a time when some of the most original accomplishments in the visual arts were achieved, among them works by Poussin and Jacques Stella. It continues with sublime works by Simon Vouet, Laurent de la Hyre and Sébastien Bourdon from the time of the sumptuous reign of Louis XIV, who was successful in establishing Royal Academies to consolidate and promote language, literature, music, arts and science and place them in the service of the Crown.
This exhibition reveals the century in all its rich diversity, from the moral rigour and harmony characteristic of Poussin to the stylish elegance and beauty of works by artists as diverse as Vouet, La Hyre and Bourdon. Through this synthesis of ‘languages’ and styles, the French sought to forge an official national style that could express unity and power, transcend and become a universal standard.
Vouet and Poussin are represented with exemplary works that document this universal French style. Allegory of Prudence, painted in his mature period c. 1645, is an interesting example of Vouet’s noble style combining a rhythmic gathering of figures and sublime palette of brilliant colour, conceived as a part of a large decorative cycle for Anne of Austria’s apartments in the Palais Royal in Paris. Poussin — represented with a wonderful Venus and Adonis painted after his arrival in Rome in 1624 — is the father of French painting, and the hero of some of the greatest painters who followed in his footsteps, from David and Ingres to Cézanne and Picasso. Sébastien Bourdon’s Lamentation for the Dead Christ gives a good idea of the protean output of this cosmopolitan painter from Montpellier who, after his training in Italy, rapidly established a reputation in Paris and later at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden in Stockholm.
The 18th century: an elegant and virtuous century
All paintings presented in the context of the exhibition reflect not only specific periods in French art over three centuries but also document the history of taste and collecting and, in particular, the development of the so-called minor genres such as portraiture, landscape, still life, the genre scene and its equivalent in 18th-century art, the fête galante. The 18th-century section of the exhibition reflects the evolution of painting to a decidedly playful and sensual art. The new artistic event of the century was the organisation of regular Salon exhibitions in Paris, which helped to create a general public and stimulate art criticism. The academic hierarchy of the genres accorded history painting first place but in practice the categories of pictures painted were less strictly classified.
Highlights include reception pieces for the Académie royale and the Salon such as the colourful Vertumna and Pomona by Jean Ranc and the brilliant Portrait of Madame Crozat by Jacques-André-Joseph Aved. Another rising star in French painting of this period was Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Greuze is without doubt the most important French painter of the 1750s whose work became extremely popular in the 19th century. Greuze became well known for his genre painting, in French peinture de mœurs or ‘morality’ painting and his development of a lofty and sentimental style.
The most famous painter of the French neoclassical period is Jacques-Louis David whose success was due to both his talent and opportunistic attitude, as an ancien régime painter, republican official and court artist to Napoléon, who was later forced to continue his career in exile in Brussels. The Portrait of Alphonse Leroy of c. 1783 represents a key work of Neoclassicism and illustrates that David was equipped not only to serve as a highly esteemed painter of history but as one of the greatest portraitists in French art.
Thanks to the donation of François-Xavier Fabre the Musée Fabre owns a unique set of nudes, portraits, landscapes and biblical subjects by this academic painter working between the styles of both Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
The 19th century: a rethinking of the formal language and subject matter of painting
The 19th century was a period in which a fundamental renewal of art took place with a comprehensive rethinking of the formal language and subject matter of painting. This period can be perceived as the beginning of what has come to be called modern art, and the outstanding works by Delacroix and Courbet in the exhibition illustrate this. Among the various paintings from Romanticism to early Impressionism are such works as the Portrait of Aspasia by Delacroix and African Woman with Peonies, one of the final paintings by the promising painter Bazille, a forerunner of the Impressionists who tragically died in 1870 in the Franco–Prussian war.
A splendid group of paintings donated in 1868 and 1876 by Alfred Bruyas marks the beginning of modern art in the Musée Fabre collection and includes highlights such as Courbet’s The Meeting or Good Day, Monsieur Courbet, which documents the close friendship between painter and patron, and various landscapes by Courbet and painters of the so-called Barbizon School, among them Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau. The exhibition gathers further momentum with striking portraits and landscapes by the Impressionists Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Armand Guillaumin. Camille Corot is represented with a sublime landscape, Fishing with Nets, which the artist successfully presented at the Salon in Paris in 1847. Corot never abandoned the classical landscape style but subtly adapted it to create a highly personal and poetic imagery of remembering, the so-called souvenirs and rêveries of his later years.
In Eugène Delacroix’s art the romantic ideal of a correspondence between art forms (including literature and music) and cultures (European, African and American) becomes reality. The Portrait of Aspasia is an outstanding example of his art and superbly documents his interest in nature and human psychology. Although born a generation after Delacroix, Alexandre Cabanel’s art is more traditional than that of Delacroix, as becomes evident in his theatrical portrait of Phaedra as a swan-song to the grand historical tradition.
A masterpiece of the the 19th century and without doubt an icon of early modern art is Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting or Good Day, Monsieur Courbet of 1854. In this work the image of the three figures highlight the dramatic encounter of the painter and patron accompanied by his servant. Courbet meets his collector and benefactor Alfred Bruyas and his art becomes recognised. This historic moment also underlines the importance of self-promotion in Courbet’s work. After 1850 the interactions and relationships among the painters, collectors and art critics became increasingly important, anticipating the development of the art market during the 1860s and the origin of Impressionism.
Alfred Sisley’s Heron with Outstretched Wings demonstrates the emancipation from subject matter, and the conquest of space and colour. Frédéric Bazille’s The Rampart, Aigues-Mortes is a striking example of the new landscape style. Berthe Morisot liberated art from the dogmas of a purely descriptive function. Young Woman Sitting at a Window in Summer, painted in 1879, is indeed a poetic composition. These artists wanted to look at the world in a new way, to give an impression of reality, truth and spontaneity, and to have an impact on the public.
Assistant Director, International Art
National Gallery of Australia
The scholars who have contributed to the catalogue include Michel Hilaire, Director of the Musée Fabre; Hilliard Goldfarb, Chief Curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Jo Hedley, Chief Curator of the Wallace Collection, London; Christopher Riopelle, Curator of the National Gallery, London; Petra Ten-Doeschate Chu, Professor at the University of Seton Hall, South Orange; Jörg Zutter, Assistant Director International Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and Pierre Rosenberg, Emeritus President and Director of the Musée du Louvre, Paris
Interchanges between Paris and Rome after 1600
The first gallery displays paintings from the seventeenth century. During this time artists placed an enormous importance on studying from antiquity and the art of the Italian Renaissance. Many artists left France to study the rich variety of painting styles available in Rome, then the artistic centre of Europe. Simon Vouet’s colourful, lively and dynamic paintings are influenced by the Italian Baroque, and contrast with Nicolas Poussin’s investigation of order and clarity, reflecting the artist’s interest in works by Raphael and Titian.
The 17th century saw significant artistic change in France. Rome remained Europe’s artistic centre. French painters moved there, studying and copying the art of antiquity and the Renaissance. Many of these painters, such as Simon Vouet, returned to Paris, while Nicolas Poussin and others remained and became Rome’s leading artists, and others, such as Sébastien Bourdon, moved on to establish careers elsewhere.
A style commonly called French Classicism developed through the interchanges between Rome, Paris and other centres. Poussin is considered one of the originators of Classicism, a style that merged the rationalism of the Renaissance, the narratives and idealism of antiquity and a French stylistic sensibility.
The century also saw an increasingly close relationship in France between art and the state. Painting performed a central role in the process of transforming France from a series of fragmented regions and communities to a highly centralised and unified nation with a common identity, economy and political structure. The reigns of Louis XIII (1610–1643) and Louis XIV (1643–1715) saw art, literature and science actively involved in the process of building a sense of France as a unified and powerful nation. Court painters received generous commissions to decorate religious and state buildings with paintings that allegorised the glories of France and the king.
The significant relationship between art and the state was also expressed in the establishment of the Académie Royal in Paris in 1648. The Académie was intended as a training ground for great French artists. It introduced students to a highly disciplined, rigorous learning program modelled on the practice and the ideals of Poussin.
The Académie maintained clear, hierarchical distinctions between different genres. History painting – the depiction of a historical or mythological narrative with multiple figures – was considered more significant than portraiture, landscape and still life, regarded simply as copies of nature. In order to win the Académie’s biggest student prize – the prestigious Prix de Rome that from the 1660s entitled the winner to a scholarship and a three- to five-year stay in Rome – entrants needed to produce a resolved history painting. On return to Paris, after absorbing the lessons of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, the winner was almost assured a fruitful career completing large-scale public and private commissions.
At the century’s end, the Académie had become the most powerful artistic body in France, as surely as Paris had begun to supersede Rome as the dominant cultural centre.
History and Genre: The Eighteenth Century
In the second gallery artists’ interests in exploring the human condition are revealed in the second room, where several paintings explore issues of morality, piety, loyalty and education. This was the time of the Enlightenment and the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789, when such sentiments were held in great regard. Works by Jacques-Louis David, the main exponent of Neo-Classical painting and a supporter of Napoleon, can be seen in this room.
The Académie’s authority and the dominance of history painting remained uncontested throughout the first decade of the eighteenth century. However, the close relationship between court, state and art that was strengthened through the role of history painting became increasingly tested.
The gradual weakening of the authority of the crown, as the reign of King Louis XIV gave way to the regency of Philippe d’Orléans in 1715, and the increased economic and political power of different social groups led to significant shifts in the ways that art was commissioned and displayed in Paris. The early 1700s saw a boom in the construction of townhouses for an emerging class of wealthy Parisians. The rooms of these fashionable hôtels were decorated by the city’s leading painters like Charles-Joseph Natoire. Increasingly, townhouses were decorated not with the timeless, weighty history paintings of the Académie, but with pastorals and light mythologies that depicted scenes of pleasure and intimacy.
Paintings became collectable as investments. Collectors also understood that social significance could be gained through displays of knowledge and taste. This helps to account for the rise of portraiture, a genre that reflected ideally the taste and social aspirations of the sitter. In such a highly competitive market, artists needed to find ways of distinguishing their work from that of their peers.
However, the mid-1700s saw a return to public virtue over private taste. In 1737 the Académie reintroduced the official Salon, an exhibition of its best work, held every second year at the Louvre in Paris. Further, increases in public spending on the arts saw a return to commissions for large-scale, didactic history painting.
Criticism following the Salons – Denis Diderot’s was the most famous – argued that art needed again to engage moral content and that it should serve a moral and social purpose. We can see in Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Noël Hallé and Jacques-Louis David the artist as a moral authority: an independent observer of social and political life whose work engaged notions of moral correctness and social responsibility. In the second half of the century, history painting again became the vehicle for this program. As the events around the Revolution of 1789 took hold, the ability of art to affect public opinion was keenly harnessed by forces both opposed to and supporting Republican efforts to destroy the ancien régime monarchy of Louis XVI in favour of the democratic tenets of liberty, fraternity and equality.
The Artist and the Studio
Paintings by François-Xavier Fabre, the artist and collector after whom the Musée Fabre is named, are displayed alongside his contemporaries. Fabre’s painting of the dying St Sebastian, created the same year as the French Revolution, shows the artist’s interest in the classical style of Italian painting, and his indebtedness to his teacher, David.
Alongside the Académie, the artist’s studio provided a space of instruction for young painters. Where the Académie’s rigorous program of instruction would introduce students to the principles of drawing, the practice of painting was often refined in the master’s studio.
Entry into studios was highly competitive, with ambitious young artists from all over the country actively seeking positions with the best painters of their time. Just as artists in the marketplace needed to find ways of distinguishing their work from that of their competitors, the notion of the artist as an original genius – of art as something given or innate to individuals, not something that could be taught in an institution – was increasingly employed to distinguish between prospective members of a studio.
Jacques-Louis David was one of the period’s great teachers. David’s studio trained the country’s most important artists, including a precocious group of young painters who joined his studio in the early 1780s. Many from this group, including François-Xavier Fabre and Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Troison, and later Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, would go on to win the Prix de Rome and make significant contributions to French painting.
Rome had been in the middle of an archaeological fever following the rediscovery of the ancient city of Pompeii in 1748. This discovery enabled scholars and artists to make accurate depictions of classical life based on archaeological evidence. Classical architecture and mythology played a vital role in Neo-classical painting, where it provided a monumental and ascetic context for directly stated moral and social tales. As David had done, many of his students, such as Girodet, went to Rome to study the lessons of the Italian masters, and returned to France to make brilliant careers as painters in the newly instituted Republic of France.
But equally, a number of artists did not return to France. The Revolution had made it difficult for the French to remain in Rome, where concern over the secular nature of the Revolution inspired antagonism. Further, a return to Paris was impossible for those artists like Fabre who had so eagerly supported the Monarchy and its Académie. In this context the northern Italian city of Florence became something of an artistic centre. Indeed, artists such as Fabre and Louis Gauffier moved to Florence and established flourishing careers as portrait and landscape painters, often for the city’s large population of wealthy English and European expatriates.
Nineteenth-Century Romanticism and Landscape
In the early nineteenth century, landscape painting evolved as a serious subject, challenging the dominance of portraiture and history painting. This coincided with an increased interest in travel to exotic locations such as North Africa and Spain, scientific voyages of discovery around the world, and the expansion of the French empire. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Eugène Fromentin travelled to foreign locales. Theodore Rousseau and Camille Corot, pursued a different path, escaping from the city to the rustic arcadia of the French countryside. Their landscape paintings were executed en plein air (out of doors) and may be seen as anticipating Impressionism.
In the academic hierarchy of 18th-century art, landscape painting was considered a relatively minor category in comparison to history, portrait and genre painting. This situation gradually changed at the end of the century when the Neo-classical landscape painters entered the scene and introduced the so-called ‘historical landscape’, a genre relying strongly on the classical landscape tradition introduced in the 17th century.
After 1810 the genre of the historical landscape came to be seen as an important mode of painting. Many of the artists painting historical landscapes were winners of the Prix de Rome for historical landscape, a prize introduced in 1817 by the Académie to enable young landscape painters to study in Italy. Both Achille-Etna Michallon and Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond received the distinction and travelled to Italy to undertake intensive study of the countryside.
The work of these artists helps us to understand the evolution from the carefully composed Neo-classical landscape to a more individualised treatment of nature, often as a result of travels, voyages and scientific expeditions throughout Europe and, more so, in North Africa, Turkey and the Orient. These journeys resulted in sketches, open-air studies and paintings of exotic or erotic subjects.
This enlarged view of the world coincided with the emergence in the early 19th century of Romanticism, a movement that recognised the importance of personal emotion and of propagating an individual artistic approach while relying strongly on literature, philosophy and history. Eugène Delacroix and Eugène Isabey are each significant Romantic painters, since both embraced the ideal of expressing feelings and moods and encouraged connections between different art forms and world cultures in an individual way.
From the 1830s on, French painters tended to favour landscape painting that was closer to nature and less anecdotal or classical than the works of Neo-classical and Romantic artists. Critics of the day often used the term Naturalism to describe the landscapes of the Barbizon School, since these works were painted in the open air in the Forest of Fontainebleau to the south of Paris, and were considered authentic portrayals of nature.
The new interest in landscape painting, practised by the painters Camille Corot, Paul Huet and Théodore Rousseau, arose from a variety of sources. A sense of a shared national past encouraged artists to work around the Forest of Fontainebleau, a place untouched by culture and industrialisation.
New Academic Painting and the Salon
Paintings in the fifth gallery were created during a time of political and social upheaval in France, yet this is not obviously apparent in the works themselves. Alexandre Cabanel created sumptuous paintings that incorporated the careful finish of academic art with the dramatic colour and composition of romanticism.
The classical tradition did not come to an end with the rise of Romanticism or the Barbizon painters in the early to mid-1800s. Rather, it remained the official style of both the Académie and the state. This figurative and quite eclectic tradition continued to favour the depiction of mythological subjects in a highly refined way – as becomes evident in the works of Alexandre Cabanel – and attracted the attention of various collectors, among them Alfred Bruyas from Montpellier.
As had been the tradition, the new academic painters studied in Rome – often winners of the famous Prix de Rome, a distinction linked with a scholarship to travel to Italy – before becoming successful in Paris. A key player in this movement was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. A student of Jacques-Louis David and one of the last, great history painters, Ingres continued to have a great impact on the evolution and reception of classical art until the end of the century. His influence is clearly evident in the work of a number of the academic painters represented in this room. These include Jean-Paul Flandrin, one of Ingres’ favourite students, Cabanel and Léon-François Benouville, who won the Prix de Rome in 1845 and went to Rome with Cabanel. Each of these painters developed a figurative and highly refined style, often the result of long sessions of anatomical study in front of a life model.
Images of the Orient continued to be popular at the Salon. Figure studies were often cast in an Orientalist setting, while landscapes of Asia Minor and the French colonies of North Africa were also regularly shown. Among the many artists who remained fascinated with the Orient was Jules Laurens, who depicted landscapes derived from careful observation and recordings made during long expeditions to Asia Minor.
Origins of Impressionism
The final gallery shows the emergence of Realism and Impressionism during the nineteenth century. Gustave Courbet, a key figure of the realist style, famously depicted people in everyday settings in his paintings. Many of his paintings were seen as politically provocative for attacking the prevailing artistic norms, and therefore represented a challenge to society. Alfred Bruyas, the central figure in Good Day, Monsieur Courbet, thought Courbet’s paintings marked the beginning of an independent, modern form of art. The exhibition finishes with paintings by Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, two quintessential Impressionists, who helped define this new modernism.
One of the main features of the new landscape style that emerged during the mid-19th century was a change in subject matter. Many French artists no longer endeavoured to imitate and recreate the classical past; instead they portrayed sites of natural beauty. Artists such as Gustave Courbet and Frédéric Bazille soon developed an interest in depicting views of regions often close to the places in which they worked: the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Channel coast and other parts of rural France.
A key figure in the development of landscape painting at the threshold of Impressionism was Courbet, who drew a great deal of inspiration for his landscapes and seascapes from the places and surrounds he visited, especially Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast and Ornans in the Jura in eastern France near Switzerland.
Landscape became a very significant genre after 1860. As art exhibitions and private collectors became more numerous in Paris, the art market gained in importance and art critics focused repeatedly on questions of the subjects and style that should be used in landscape painting. Many of the artists presented in this room explore the new practices of capturing nature in a quick and very spontaneous manner that would become fashionable and lead finally to the landscapes full of light and shimmering colours that we today consider typical of Impressionism.
Dark colours, often used in the past and derived from the old masters (especially those of Spain and Holland), were rejected by the landscape painters presented here and replaced by a bright and radiant palette. These artists often painted their views in the open and not in the studio, since they wanted to look at the world in a modern, spontaneous way and deliver an immediate record of reality.
Many of the Impressionists, including Bazille and Alfred Sisley, were interested in exploring new artistic possibilities in painting, not only landscapes but also still lifes. Sisley’s and Bazille’s still lifes illustrate superbly how important this genre became as a result of the artist’s sustained interest in depicting different aspects of nature.
At the same time, painters such as Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas sought to depict the conditions of modern life. Morisot’s and Degas’s paintings of figures in a contemporaneous setting established an exciting dialogue between nature and modern city life.