Masterworks – 400 Years of French Painting
December 16, 2004 – February 27, 2005
This exhibition, presented by the Central Directorate of French Museums to celebrate the enlargement of the EU, wishes to capture the continuity and variety of four centuries of French painting (1600-2004), together with its contradictions and original features, its desires and utopias. This thematic selection offers a comprehensive view of the dramatic play of light and shadow in 17th-century painting; opens a panorama of the art of the Enlightenment in France; and leads the viewer from the 19th century’s interest in the landscape to Impressionism, and on to the art of a century that sought to reexamine human and intellectual values.
French art had an especially powerful influence on the artists of Central Europe. Our exhibition intends to highlight the points of contact, by presenting not only the greatest masterworks, but also pieces which the public is less familiar with, from Paris-based collections like the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum and the Modern Art Collection of the National Museum, as well as other great museums elsewhere in France.
From Goerges de La Tour (17th c.) to Henri Matisse (20th c.), painters in all ages were fascinated by the workings of light and shadow. French classicists in the 18th century were cautious, as it were, of harsh lights and heavy shadows, fearing they shatter the airiness of figures and affect the “readability” of compositions. On the other hand, from the 1610s on, Caravaggio’s followers, greatly influential in European art, were keen on exploiting such conflicts of light and shadow for the sake of dramatic effects. Some of the remarkable works of the period are still-lifes (Moillon, Stosskopff), though following Vouet’s return from Italy, the influence of Italian decorative painting also became discernible. The paintings which the mostly Italian artists made for the order of the French court introduced such novelties as grand compositions, a uniform lighting and the use of light colours. While the Academy set Poussin’s antique and biblical scenes to be the paragons of the next two hundred years, landscapes made their return in the 1640’s, establishing a symbolic connection between human passions and the raging elements through the expressive use of lights.
The 18th century was characterized by a more cheerful mood, a kind of superficial frivolity, resulting in a more even distribution of light and a lighter palette. The preferred subjects were exotic and light-hearted, tragedy was superseded by gaiety. The landscapes of Watteau’s gallant parties are dominated by a filtered light which adds to the mysteriousness of the weightless figures, while Vernet’s use of powerful contrasts in his night-time seascapes made him a forerunner of the Romantics. Late 18th-century historical painting turned to national history for inspiration, while its vivid colours show its indebtedness to the structural principles of Italian Baroque. David in his turn tried to reconcile ideal beauty with verisimilitude in a personal brand of neo-classicism.
The desire to represent nature in its entirety, as it is perceived by the retina, informed much of the landscape painting of the 19th century; painters were using a variety of sources, and famous scenes slowly gave way to scientific analyses of light phenomena. Realist painters too drew on the creative conflict of verisimilitude and expressive composition. Impressionist vowed to record their own subjective sensations rather than represent conventional forms sanctioned by a particular social group. By staging everyday subjects in a different light, Manet and Degas stood up for the originality of the artistic vision.
Leaving reality behind, 20th-century painting detached light from form and colour. In the work of Picasso and Braque, the geometric mode of representation reached maturity. Both sought new ways in painting, and in the process applied objects to the canvas, used collage and pasted paper. With automatism as its cornerstone, Surrealism, one of the great trends of the century, sought to represent thought without the constraints of reason. Analytical-critical reflection on the purpose of art became even more intensive after World War Two. And finally, in contemporary painting the contrast of light and shadow is no longer an optical phenomenon, but serves, by way creating distance or irony, a search for a dramatic and refined view of reality.
To provide a sense of this process in its complexity, the exhibition not only presents different visions, but courses a metaphoric journey as well. This broad panorama of painting is also an attempt at a new reading of the history of French art, one that emphasizes all those conflicts, host of methods and opportunities of interpretation, which are present in the lesser-known works just as well as in the masterpieces, introducing the public to one of the latest chapters of thought concerning art.