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Getty Museum presents drawings from the greatest artists of 18th-century France in Rococo to Revolution
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Father's Curse: The Ungrateful Son, about 1778. Brush and gray wash, squared in pencil. 50.2 x 64 cm. 83.GG.231. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- For nearly three-quarters of a century, from the death of Louis XIV in 1715 to the Revolution of 1789, France’s intellectual and artistic landscape flourished, reaching new levels of splendor and accomplishment. During this period, when inventiveness was greatly valued, drawing exemplified the creative impulse perhaps more than any other artistic medium. Through outstanding examples by of some of the period’s most acclaimed artists, the art of drawing is celebrated in Rococo to Revolution: 18th-century French Drawings from Los Angeles Collections, on view July 1–September 21, 2014 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. The exhibition includes more than 40 drawings from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection, complemented by works from distinguished private collections in Los Angeles.

“Drawing contributed to an aesthetic evolution in France, starting with the decorative exuberance of the Rococo, and gradually giving way to the austerity of Neoclassicism,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This exhibition tracks that evolution through the work of some of the finest artists of the 18th century, highlighting works in our collection alongside generous loans from local collections. We are fortunate and grateful to be able to exhibit these rarely-seen works.”

Featured in the exhibition is work by artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Henri-Pierre Danloux, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jacques-Louis David, among others.

In 18th-century France, the Paris Academy of Painting and Sculpture was the dominant arts institution, and it considered drawing fundamental to artistic creation. Artists were thus encouraged to master the medium from an early age, and to practice it throughout their careers.

“While drawing was most often used in preparation for paintings, prints, sculpture or architecture, many of the drawings created in that period were works of art in their own right,” explains Edouard Kopp, associate curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Drawings were avidly collected at the time, as connoisseurs much appreciated the insights into the creative process that such works offered. This pursuit is continued with enthusiasm by the Getty Museum and private collectors in Los Angeles today.”

Indeed, artists during this period elevated drawing to new heights. In The Swing (late 1730s or early 1740s), François Boucher (French, 1703–1770) revives the pastoral genre, portraying figures at play on a log turned seesaw, with their elegant dress belying the country setting in typical Rococo fashion. Boucher shows a virtuosic command of black chalk, creating a wide array of marks from short flicks to zigzags. Among the most dazzling drawings in the exhibition is Two Studies of a Flutist and a Study of the Head of a Boy by Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721). Executed in a spontaneous yet highly sophisticated combination of red, black, and white chalk, the sheet evokes the flow of music and Watteau’s passion for it. A master of suggestion, the draftsman has captured the undulating, rhythmic motion of a flute player in two distinct poses, while a young observer appears to be listening intently, enraptured by the concert.

Some of the works in the exhibition reflect political leanings. Henri-Pierre Danloux (French, 1753–1809) was the most sought-after portraitist by the French aristocracy in the 1780s. In Portrait of a Young Lady in Profile (about 1783–85), Danloux’s skill is apparent in a remarkably lifelike depiction of a woman, her layers of soft curls and striped, ruffled dress rendered with loose black lines. Her parted lips demonstrate immediacy, rather than a static moment. An outspoken rival of the royalist Danloux, Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748–1825) created Portrait of Andre-Antoine Bernard, called Bernard de Saintes (1795) while imprisoned for revolutionary activities. The portrait is a bust-length profile in a medallion format that recalls ancient coins. However, David undermined the classical association with that genre by depicting the sitter crossing his arms defiantly and wearing a distinctive hat and an intense expression that identified him as a revolutionary.

Family drama was also a popular theme in the later 1700s. One of the greatest draftsmen of all time, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806) evokes the frenzied joy of family life in Making Beignets (about 1782). Fragonard is able to turn the simple act of making sweets into a celebration, as a roiling mound of forms and faces are imbued with energy using a flurry of rapid-fire graphite lines, a warm brown wash, and the luminous quality of the paper itself. In Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s (French, 1725–1805) The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son (about 1778), a scene of violent family discord is handled with a degree of seriousness and theatricality normally reserved for grand historical subjects: the artist indeed creates dramatic figural poses and strong contrasts of light and shadow.

Conversely, the revolutionary sentiment at the time was slyly referenced in ancient scenes by David such as The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1787). David illustrates the story of Roman consul Lucius Junius Brutus, who, upon hearing that his sons have conspired to overthrow his government, orders them executed for treason. David chooses the moment when Brutus is presented with their bodies, his own figure placed in the dark foreground. This drawing conveys a sense of struggle between patriotic duty and familial loyalty, which David intended to be morally edifying for the public, not long before France entered years of political turmoil.

Rococo to Revolution: 18th-Century French Drawings from Los Angeles Collections, is on view July 1–September 21, 2014 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. The exhibition is curated by Edouard Kopp, associate curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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