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Special Report

First Comprehensive Survey
of French Genre Painting


Jean-Antoine Watteau
Love in the French Theatre, c. 1716
oil on canvas
37 x 48 cm (14 9/16 x 18 7/8)


Jean-Antoine Watteau
Venetian Pleasures, c. 1718 - 1719
oil on canvas
55.9 x 45.7 cm (22 x 18)


Jean-Antoine Watteau
Mezzetin, c. 1718-1720
oil on canvas
55.2 x 43.2 cm (21 3/4 x 17)


Jean-Antoine Watteau
Iris (The Dance), c. 1719
oil on canvas
97.5 x 116 cm (38 3/8 x 45 11/16)

 

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Washington, DC--The National Gallery of Art will be the only U.S. venue for the first large-scale survey of French genre painting--scenes from daily life, real and imagined--by such 18th-century masters as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, François Boucher, and Louis-Léopold Boilly. On view in the West Building October 12, 2003 through January 11, 2004, The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting will include works never before exhibited in this country and will offer an unprecedented opportunity to see some of these artists’ finest works in proximity to each other.

The 18th century was a period of vast political, economic, and social change in France, as the moral principles of the Enlightenment took hold and radically transformed the structures of society. Mirroring the contemporary realities of French culture, French genre paintings were part of the great ideological shift in thought and art, away from the religious and monarchical values of 17th-century French society towards the ideals of the Enlightenment.
 

"This exhibition charts the transformations of an art that formed a constantly changing mirror of Parisian social life and culture," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to the Florence Gould Foundation, our museum partners, and the lenders for their support in bringing to the public such an important opportunity to view and reconsider French genre painting."


Exhibition Organization, Tour, and Support: The exhibition has been organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie. It will be on view in Ottawa through September 7, 2003, and at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, February 8 through May 9, 2004. The exhibition was made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.


The Exhibition: Influenced by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art, French genre painting demonstrated a compelling vitality, ultimately surpassing that of the officially sanctioned history painting that prevailed in France at the beginning of the 18th century. The exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically. Its more than 100 master works--some on loan from France, Germany, England, and Russia--span the entire 18th century, from the last years of Louis XIV to the French Revolution, and reveal Enlightenment ideals of the family, the education of children, the importance of love, and the sheer delight in painting.
 

Highlights include Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684 -1721) fêtes galantes ("gallant parties") of the elite such as Venetian Pleasures (c.1718 -1719) and scenes of ideal family life, as in his follower Nicholas Lancret’s (1690 -1743) A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee with Some Children (c. 1738); Jean-Baptiste- Siméon Chardin’s (1699 -1779) exquisitely dignified narratives of children and servants, such as The Return from the Market (1738); and such hugely popular family dramas as Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s (1725 -1805) The Marriage Contract (1761). Other highlights are the flirtatious, erotic liaisons dangereuses of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 -1806), such as The Stolen Kiss (c. 1786-1788); François Boucher’s (1703 -1770) celebration of his sheer delight in the material world in Presumed Portrait of Madame Boucher (1743); Etienne Aubry’s (1745 -1781) Paternal Love (c. 1775), commending the engagement of both parents in raising their children, in accord with the latest Enlightenment ideas; and Louis-Léopold Boilly’s (1761-1845) scenes of contemporary Paris.

 Curators and Catalogue: Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings and curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, is the curator of the Washington exhibition, in collaboration with Colin B. Bailey, chief curator, The Frick Collection, and former chief curator, National Gallery of Canada; and Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director, Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, and professor at the Freie Universität Berlin.

The richly illustrated exhibition catalogue, produced by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, includes a curators’ preface; essays by Colin Bailey, Thomas Gaehtgens, Barbara Gaehtgens, Marianne Roland Michel, and Martin Schieder; entries on 113 works; and a complete listing of genre paintings shown at the Paris Salons from 1699 to 1789. It will be available from the National Gallery of Art shops, by phone at (202) 842-6002 or (800) 697-9350, and online at www.nga.gov.

Companion Exhibition: Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from October 26, 2003 through February 16, 2004. Celebrating one of the most innovative periods in the history of color printmaking, the exhibition presents some 115 French 18th-century color prints, all very fine impressions, including prints after works by Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Robert, and Boilly, among others.

Biographies of the Artists: Watteau, Chardin, Greuze & Fragonard

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and the Fête Galante

In August 1717, the Royal Academy formally received Jean-Antoine Watteau as a painter of a new category of art created specially for him, the fête galante - a depiction of elegant couples in secluded parks, engaged in flirtatious conversation and amorous embrace. The success of this theme reflects a society beginning to relax after the austerity of the last years of Louis XIV, one in which Watteau’s patrons and friends enjoyed intimate fêtes galantes in the theatre and outdoors. Parades--amateur theatricals stated by wealthy Parisians in their country retreats--mingled guests in masks and fancy dress with actors costumed as Harlequin, the amorous acrobat, Pierrot, the dreamer, Mezzetin, the clown musician, and other commedia dell’arte stock characters. The nostalgic fantaisies that made Watteau one of the most influential artists of the century became widely known due to the efforts of Jean de Jullienne, a wealthy drapery merchant and avid collector of Watteau’s paintings. Jullienne published a compendium of 271 engravings of Watteau’s paintings and decorations, the Recueil Jullienne, in 1735. The younger artists Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater studied with Watteau and continued the tradition of the fête galante.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779)

"One uses colours but one paints with feeling."

Chardin came from an artisan background. Working his way up in the social and artistic hierarchy, he trained at the Guild of Saint-Luc’s school, and exhibited at the Exposition de la Jeunesse (Youth Fair), the annual open-air show on the Place Dauphine. In September 1728, he was invited to join the Royal Academy and was received on the same day. While his modest domestic scenes are in the tradition of Dutch 17th-century cabinet paintings, Chardin developed a technique uniquely his own, with great depth of tone and subtle play of light. The simplicity and directness of his work conveys a sense that everything is organized and at peace. Children are either alone or with servants; they focus on games or pause from the duty of learning to read and write. It is the governess who prepares the children for their lessons and gives them their meals. Chardin’s genre scenes were very popular at the Salon and were acquired by wealthy clients, royal collectors, and aristocrats, including the Queen of Sweden and the Prince of Liechtenstein. The middle-class public could buy affordable engravings of his work, and these were widely and avidly collected.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)

"Moral paintings"

Greuze was the most successful genre painter of the mid-18th century. He made the fullest use of the Salon, where he was acclaimed by fellow artists, critics, and the public. His paintings elicited strong emotional responses and were praised by the art critic Denis Diderot as "la peinture morale"-- moral paintings. Greuze realized that the family was the sphere that most readily aroused people’s emotions; his paintings of domestic life were rich in symbolism that was easy to decipher. Some of his subjects illustrate the genre poissard, a comic category in popular literature and theatre that featured the fishwives and boatmen along the Seine and the stallholders of the Paris market. In 1767, Greuze decided to abandon genre and present a history painting, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla, as his reception piece to the Royal Academy. Perhaps he thought his skills were equal to those of his contemporaries working in this specialty; he may also have realized that the highest posts and honours were reserved for history painters. The Academy accepted him as a member, but only at the rank of genre painter. The ensuing controversy shocked the Parisian art world, and Greuze was so disappointed that he boycotted the Salon until after the Revolution.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

Amorous adventures

After apprenticeships with Chardin and Boucher, Fragonard won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1752 to study at the French Academy in Rome. In preparation, he studied history painting at the École Royale des Élèves Protégés (School for Gifted Artists). While he might have taken the traditional path of the history painter and been rewarded with a successful career within the Academy, Fragonard chose to produce art that was free of thematic and formal constraints, and he seldom exhibited at the Salon. His playful or erotic themes were very popular with wealthy collectors. He also depicted domestic scenes that recall 17th-century Dutch and Flemish cabinet paintings in their subject matter and highly refined finish. Although his technical versatility enabled him to work in a variety of styles, he excelled at the rapid, fluid brushwork and luminous colour that evoke movement and light. He executed a number of decorative commissions; the most important being the Progress of Love series of 1771–1773 for Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. On occasion, Fragonard collaborated with Marguerite Gérard, his student and sister-in-law.

History of 18th-Century France: Highlights

The 18th century was a period of vast political, economic, and social change in France, as the moral principles of the Enlightenment took hold and radically transformed the structures of society. Mirroring the contemporary realities of French culture, French genre paintings were part of the great ideological shift in thought and art, away from the religious and monarchical values of 17th-century French society towards the ideals of the Enlightenment.

1702 The Hapsburg King of Spain, Charles II, died. Fearing France’s expansion into Spain, the British declared war on France, marking the beginning of The War of Spanish Succession.

1713 The War of Spanish Succession ended with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht and France was forced to cede to Great Britain the Hudson Bay territory, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia.

1715 When Louis XV succeeded Louis XIV as King of France, it was the first time in 72 years that the French public would greet a new king. The Sun King Louis XIV died two days later, marking the end of one of the most significant reigns in French history. During his reign, Louis XIV had made France one of the most preeminent powers in Europe and much of French social and artistic life was dominated by his imperial aspirations. From 1715 until the new boy king came of age in 1723, a Regency (Régence) was instituted, with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans serving as Regent. He lived at the Palais-Royal in Paris, and consequently the center of French society shifted from the old royal palace of Versailles to the city. The pomp and ceremony of Versailles was abandoned, to be replaced by the refined social life which now flourished in the more intimate and private town houses of Paris. Throughout the reign of Louis XV, political and private life became much more relaxed and this transition was mirrored by new styles in art. French painting became more concerned with the intimate, decorative, and even the erotic, than with the nation building ideal of 17th-century France.

1717 Writer and philosopher Francois Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months for writing a satire of the French government. During his time in prison, he wrote "Oedipe", his first theatrical success, using the pen name "Voltaire." A voice of reason and an outspoken critic of religious intolerance and persecution, Voltaire produced hundreds of books, plays, and other publications. In many ways, he was responsible for bringing the ideas of the Enlightenment to France, ideas that would eventually change the structure of French society itself.

1726 Voltaire is exiled to England until 1729 after insulting the Chevalier De Rohan, a powerful young nobleman. While in England, Voltaire became interested in England’s constitutional monarchy and its religious tolerance. He was introduced to the philosophy of John Locke and was deeply influenced by the philosophical rationalism of the time. His experiences in England would have a profound impact of his later writings.

1737 A major event in the art world was the institution of annual (sometimes biennial) public art exhibitions in the Salon of the royal palace of the Louvre. These exhibitions were organized by the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and introduced contemporary art to a much wider general public. The Salon Exhibitions stimulated a new art market, and encouraged artists to consider the responses of their new audience. It also gave rise to a new type of journalism, art criticism, which engendered a lively debate about the role of art in society.

1745 Voltaire was appointed historiographer to the King, and the Marquise de Pompadour became the mistress of Louis XV. Actively involved in the direction and support of French art and letters, she gave commissions to Boucher, Greuze, Vernet, Fragonard, and other artists.

1751 The first volume of the Encyclopédie is published, with the philosophers Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert as its principal editors. This multi-volume encyclopedia of practical and scientific information, published over many years until 1776, was the mouthpiece of the Enlightenment. It contained the latest philosophical ideals, many of them politically and socially radical for the time.

1755 Marie-Antoinette was born in Vienna. The youngest daughter of Francis Stephen I and Maria Theresa, Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, she was raised to believe that she would be the next Queen of France.

1759 Voltaire moved to the French-Swiss border; visits from writers and philosophers made his estate one of the intellectual capitals of Europe.

1769 Louis XV requested the hand of the Marie-Antoinette for his nephew and heir, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste; they wed in 1770.

1774 King Louis XV died and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette acceded to the French throne. Throughout the reign of Louis XV, France had fallen into financial ruin and the couple was blamed for much of the economic and political crisis. As the King and Queen of France, they lived extravagant lifestyles and stories of their excess circulated within the public.

1778 France entered the War of the American Revolution on the side of the American colonies, with financially devastating consequences for France.

1783 The Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the American war. France emerged with few concrete gains and a debt situation approaching catastrophe. Involvement with America had also "infected" many French with the revolutionary spirit.

1783 Voltaire returned to Paris at age 83 - a return that was celebrated by the Parisian public. The excitement of the trip proved difficult for Voltaire’s health and he died in Paris. Because of his criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. His body was removed from Paris and buried at an abbey in Champagne.

1788 King Louis XVI began to recognize the need for fundamental change as France approached near financial devastation. He forced the nobility and clergy to pay taxes and ordered the election of an Estates General, the first since 1614. The shift in French politics structure consequently ended absolutism in France.

1789 The financial crisis in France escalated to catastrophic proportions with nearly half of the French population unemployed. In May, the French Revolution began with the meeting of the Estates General. On July 14, the Bastille was stormed, beginning the violence that would last throughout the next few years. In October, The Royal Family and the French court were removed from Versailles to Paris. King Louis XVI recognizes the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and a constitutional government instituted limited control of the monarchy. Across France, peasants rose and seized the land as they heard accounts of the events that had transpired in Paris. Thousands of nobles fled into exile and the revolution began a period that became known as “The Great Fear.”

1791 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were caught attempting to flee Paris for Varennes in June.

1792 France declared war on Austria in May as Austrian forces attempted to overthrow Revolutionary forces and regain control of France. Louis XVI was placed on trial for conspiring with the advancing allied armies of Austria, Holland, Prussia, and Sardinia. One of the prosecutors was the King’s distant cousin, formerly Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had joined the revolution and renamed himself Louis-Philippe Egalité. The trial was a foregone conclusion, and Louis was condemned to death.

1793 On January 21, Louis XVI was executed. On the October 16, Queen Marie Antoinette died under the guillotine. Throughout the Reign of Terror that began after her death, thousands of the French nobility were killed until the fall of Robespierre on July 27, 1794.

1804 Napoleon Buonaparte became Emperor in May, ending the French Revolution.



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