Ever since Lafayette, some connection between America and France, however tenuous, has existed. One of the strongest bonds between the two countries is the American love of French art. When we think of French art today, we instantly imagine the Impressionists. Our National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, however, houses one of the finest collections of 15th to 18th century French art in the world, thanks in part to the benefactors who saw something of America in those French artworks. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century documents the rich and varied collection of artworks and shows how this French connection tells us as much about American history as it does about French history.
This latest catalogue is the eighteenth volume in a long-term project by the NGA to systematically document their extraordinary collection, all of which has been amassed in just the last 70 years either by the private donation of art or the funds to purchase art. The driving force behind this particular volume was Philip Conisbee, the volume’s editor and principal author, who was senior curator of European paintings at the National Gallery of Art and a specialist in French art of the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Conisbee passed away in 2008 after years of contributing to this work. The volume is dedicated to his memory.
In his “Director’s Foreword,” Earl A. Powell, III, explains the complex relationship between Americans and French artistry. The generation of the Founding Fathers found French art “too aritstocratic—not to say royalist—or excessively religious, or decadently luxurious.” Although parallels existed between the two countries’ revolutions, the differences in the countries before those revolutions were just two different to bridge the aesthetic gap. In the 19th century, however, that gap was bridged when contemporary artists began to appeal to American collectors’ tastes. “Americans were often the most significant patrons and supporters of” mid-19th century French artists such as Jean-Francois Millet, William Bouguereau, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Powell points out, “and their legacy graces the walls of many American museums today.” It is at the end of the 19th century, however, that American collectors looked to the art of the French past. “American collectors of the Gilded Age rediscovered French art of the ancient regime as an expression of luxury and opulence that mirrored their own ostentatious wealth,” Powell explains. Collectors such as J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and most importantly Andrew W. Mellon, whose collection founded the NGA, saw their kingliness in the art of the now extinct French royalty.
When those Gilded Age kings donated their collections to the NGA, the result was as eccentric as the donors. As Conisbee’s writes in his “Introduction,” “Collecting at the National Gallery has never been systematic or directed toward historical comprehensiveness. Rather, the whole is a sum of parts, fundamentally a collection of collections, reflecting the taste of the American benefactors who donated their collections.” You can feel the personalities of the donors in many of the works presented. “It conjures up the comforting vision that all was indeed for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” Conisbee writes of one work, “before the social cataclysm of the French Revolution in 1789.” So many of these works seem unserious today because they show the world in a positive light, but if we open ourselves up to their world, we may catch a bit of the optimism and sheer joy of living and loving they represent.
The cover of the catalogue captures this fragile optimism beautifully by displaying Jean Siméon Chardin‘s Soap Bubbles, which playfully speaks simultaneously of the beauty of the world and its impermanence. This House of Cards, another Chardin work at the NGA, will fall down eventually, so live life to the fullest while it stands. Jean Honore Fragonard and Francois Boucher appear to speak to the lovers, while Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin pull the thinkers aside. Georges de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalen shows how sensuality, sentimentality, and religious sensibility can coexist in great art. And Jean Antoine Watteau’s The Italian Comedians reminds us again not to take things too seriously. Flipping through these pages is a greatest hits package of three centuries of great French art. Some of the greatest pleasures, however, come in discovering names known only to specialists today, such as Nicolas de Largillierre, Jean Baptiste Oudry, and the Caravaggio-esque artists Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet. With impeccable scholarship and exhaustive detail, this volume will serve as a definitive source for students of French painting not only for the big names, but also for the “little” names well worth knowing, too.
Just as the spirit of the collectors looms over this collection, the spirit of Philip Conisbee smiles down on this volume. In the memorial to Conisbee in the beginning of the book, we learn that Chardin was his favorite artist. The same deft touch, delicate thoughtfulness, and sincere warmth in Chardin’s art runs throughout French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, making it the perfect memorial to the NGA’s fallen, but not forgotten, friend.
[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century.]