Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Unsettling Charm of the French at the Taft Museum

     The Taft Museum’s latest special exhibition “Old Masters to Impressionists:  Three Centuries of French Painting from the Wadsworth Atheneum” covers an enormous amount of ground in terms of historical period, styles, and subject matter.  It’s a series of snapshots (so to speak) that look at the life of ‘The Salon’ from around 1650 when Louis XIV first demanded parameters for French painting that would be sponsored by the king, the aristocracy and, in the nineteenth century, the merchant class or bourgeoisie.  It’s an ambitious show, but one that an attentive viewer can cover in about an hour.  It’s well worth a visit because many of these artists – especially those that are more obscure or considered second stringers – are rarely seen in Cincinnati.  

     It progresses along the walls in chronological order.  The seventeenth century ones in the first gallery are pretty dreary – mainly religious subjects and a genre piece that both patronizes its parochial figures and technically isn’t well drawn.  Don’t worry – it gets a lot better as the viewer steps into the Rococo where both the subjects and the viewer seem to be one step away from the boudoir.  Some of the curator’s comments are an unintentional hoot because there is a disconnect between what is being described as important about the painting and its subject and what the viewer can pretty easily infer as actually occurring.

An Elegant Interior of a Lady,
Her Maid, and a Gentleman
by Trinquesse
Nowhere is this more evident than in Louis Rolland Trinquesse’s An Elegant Interior of a Lady, Her Maid, and a Gentleman.  It looks like a scene out of de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, though it pre-dates that novel.  The lady is literally holding onto her hair (a hilariously top heavy
wig) while flirting and hoping to get it on with the younger gentleman, who seems to be a gigolo.  The maid – like a character out of Moliere – regards the scene proprietarily for her mistress, but also with a sense of scorn.

     Jean Baptiste Greuze presents Indolence both realistically, but also symbolically.  Although it may at first look like a poorer woman who’s pretty much down at mouth, it also reveals through its choice of objects like the unwashed bowl, the one shoe on and other shoe off, and the loose clothing that this might be a prostitute between clients.  Again, the curator’s notes don’t go that far, but it’s all there.  Hubert Robert’s Jean Antoine Roucher Preparing for his Prison Transfer is a poignant reimagining of a significant writer who found himself in the wrong clique at the wrong time and finally executed during the Reign of Terror period after the initial French Revolution.   Claude Joseph Vernet’s The Storm looks like it could have been painted by Thomas Hart Benton – it has that realistic but romanticized sense about it that seems hopeful during horrendous times.  

Sunset in the Hills
of Jean-de-Paris
by Rousseau
     Two very impressive works from the 19th century are Henri Paul Motte’s The Trojan Horse that could be a scene from a Cecil B. De Mille epic, but which might not have gone down well with the middle-class because it didn’t fit well over the proverbial sofa and Pierre Rousseau’s Sunset in the Hills of Jean-de-Paris.  This is a rocky, sunset landscape (it doesn’t reproduce well) that is both monochromatic and almost abstract in its outline of the landscape details.  It’s outside Paris, but it could be the mountains north of Santa Fe or even a moonscape.  With the 19th century, I think many Americans look forward to the Impressionists who reacted against the Salon and the establishment for which it stood.  Of course, in a generation, they became the new establishment demonstrating Weber’s theory of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.  However, in this historical context, the Impressionists followed through on a number of genre subjects (still-life, portrait, seascape, landscape) but in different physical manners of applying paint to canvas.  

Double Portrait—The Cousins
of the Painter
 by Degas
     Edgar Degas’ Double Portrait – The Cousins of the Painter captures not only the two girls’ personalities and temperament, but does so in two styles moving from realism to impressionism.  The painting shows the transition from one movement to the next in a work that is both sweet and a little creepy.  Those Diane Arbus twins come to mind that Stanley Kubrick recalled in The Shining.

The Beach at Trouville by Monet
Avenue de Clichy by Anquentin
There’s a gorgeous example of early Monet in The Beach at Trouville and Louis Anquentin’s Avenue de Clichy that bears a striking resemblance both to Medieval cloisonné and Toulouse Lautrec’s Montmartre posters.  Everything is illuminated, literally and figuratively, in a Monet water lilies painting.  It is simultaneously a cliché and a masterwork – akin to a perfectly cooked comfort food like cassoulet or coq au vin.

I was a little disappointed that there weren't any cats in the paintings.

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