"Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil", Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1873, oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell

By: Jane Durrell

Bostonians with a penchant for French painting from the glory days might be disappointed if they stop by the Wadsworth Atheneum just now, for forty-five paintings from that collection are at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati in the exhibition Old Masters to Impressionists: Three Centuries of French Painting from the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s a gallop through three exciting centuries, when France for most of the time was the undisputed center for western painting and the works themselves are bellwethers of what a changing society values.

The centuries in question are the 17th, 18th and 19th.. At the time of the earliest paintings here European art centered on Rome, but after the mid-1600s Louis XIV made France the innovative heart of that world. Claude Lorraine, more or less inventing landscape as we know it, was working in Rome when he made “Saint George and the Dragon,” seen in the exhibition’s opening gallery, as was Simon Vouet when he painted the “Saint Margaret” also shown there. The most interesting painting in that first gallery, however, is the surprising “Peasants in a Landscape,” the work of the French brothers Le Nain who never left their home in rural Picardy and unlike sophisticated fellow artists in Italy included peasant neighbors and friends in their paintings. The people, a dog, a jug are solid and real; the church and other background buildings appear wholly unsubstantial and perhaps didn’t interest the brothers in the way that ordinary life did.

The exhibition moves on to the 18th century and quickly into the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI when frivolity was the order of the day at court and paintings often gave the viewer a knowing smile. See “The Egg Seller” by François Boucher, with innuendo thick as his lush paint, and “An Elegant Interior with a Lady, Her Maid, and a Gentleman” by Louis-Rolland Tromqiesse; the title itself almost a short story. Don’t let these splendidly executed fripperies distract you from a masterful still life by Chardin, in which a dressed chicken, a basket of onions and other homely items become a poem for the eye.

Comes the revolution and things are rapidly much more serious. Nature and the simple life take on idealized virtues. An early (1828-30) Corot, “Panoramic View of Rouen,” is a delight with its horizontal strokes of blues and grays set off by a pale brown road. Géricault portrays a draft horse so muscled and handsome it might serve some god’s equipage.  Rousseau’s rendering of a sunset shows a landscape shot through with the red of late afternoon. But by 1854 Eugêne Delacroix was painting “Bathing Women” in a manner later artists would look at carefully, to see how he handled water, female flesh, and a lack of interest in moral judgment. A cool-eyed, remote looking duke (Ferdinand Phillipe of Orleans) is the subject of an Ingres portrait, but the middle class was rising and looking for art as well. It would find it.

Degas shows us two cousins, women, one crisply painted and looking directly out of the canvas, the other shadowy and head turned, no contact at all with the viewer. There’s a Boudin, “The Beach at Trouville,” a recurrent subject for this artist, a Monet seaside painting and a Renoir in which you can almost feel the heavy air of late summer. We’ve arrived at Impressionism.

These works, scaled for domestic hanging, are familiar ground by artists we know how to enjoy. Some are predictable -a vase of flowers by Redon – some unexpected – a fish still life by Alfred Sisley. Van Gogh brings us up short, with an emotionally intense self portrait that encapsulates the need for a new category: Post-Impressionism.

The Taft Museum likes its exhibitions to dovetail in some fashion with its permanent collection. Here, three of the artists are represented in the Taft’s own galleries: Ingres, Corot, and Rousseau. Ingres’ “Mademoiselle Jeanne Gonin” at the Taft is a more personal, less formal presentation than his portrait of the Duke of Orleans in the exhibition, perhaps reflecting his friendship with the Gonin family. The Taft has five paintings by Corot, none earlier than 1855 and one perhaps as late as 1870, all decades on from the “Panoramic View of Rouen” in the exhibition. Is there a youthful enjoyment, a sense of sheer pleasure in painting in the “View of Rouen” that habit has tamed in the later works? It’s worth taking a look to see.

The three Rousseaus at the Taft are all earlier than the 1864 painting in the exhibition, but one of them (in the collection catalogue I am consulting as I write) is suffused with tempered light in something of the manner of the Wadsworth painting. As with the Corots, it’s foolish to make statements based on reproductions rather than the works themselves, so one should go to see.. And here is the practical reason the Taft Museum looks for connections to its own collection: both the collection and the exhibition are richer when they feed each other.

Old Masters to Impressionists is on view through September 16 at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike Street, open Wednesday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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