Tuesday, April 1st, 2003

French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873

Dahesh Museum of Art
580 Madison Avenue at 57th Street, New York (at 57th Street)

September 3-November 2, 2003

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the Tent of Achilles Oil on canvas, 44 ½" x 57 ½" Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the Tent of Achilles Oil on canvas, 44 ½" x 57 ½" Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts

“Academic”: In the contemporary art world, it’s a term so often associated with inflexibility, reaction, and soulless polish that few New York painters would care to wear the label. Since 1995, however, the Dahesh Museum has bravely pushed on with some two dozen handsomely installed exhibitions, solidifying its status as the country’s only museum dedicated to nineteenth and early twentieth-century academic art. The curators clearly have a sense of mission, and it must be admitted that they also have something of a point; after all, if the purpose of art is to tell us about ourselves, then it’s pertinent that academic art reflects the most widespread tastes of that time, and possibly even ours-Bouguereau’s Water Girl, 1885, is probably more meaningful to most of Middle America today than a Gerhard Richter or even a Picasso. (The Museum’s very first exhibition was slyly titled When Art was Popular: The Salon and the Royal Academy in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.)

The Dahesh is inaugurating its new, roomier quarters in the former IBM Gallery space with French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873, an exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of another institutional move, that of the French Academy in Rome to the Villa Medici in 1803. Organized by the French Academy in Rome, Ingres to Degas opened in that city last spring. Its installation at the Dahesh includes 130 paintings and sculptures by the Prix de Rome winners who won residencies at the Villa Medici, along with works by contemporaries who traveled there independently. The works are attractively installed in several galleries following a hall of samplings from the Dahesh’s own permanent collection.

Founded in 1648 with the admirable goal of nourishing the study of antique and Renaissance masterpieces, the French Academy established its outpost in Rome in 1666. For some two centuries it retained an extraordinary power over the teaching, rating, and exhibiting of art in France, and during the eighteenth century the Academy’s members included such remarkable artists as Watteau (1684-1721) and Chardin (1699-1779). Of course there’s no recipe for genius, and Ingres to Degas confirms that its nineteenth-century members often replicated only the mannerisms of such masters as Raphael and Michelangelo.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau Teresa c1854 Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 12.75 inches Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Teresa c1854 Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 12.75 inches Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

That said, Ingres to Degas is an intriguing and entertaining exhibition, with the many less memorable works punctuated by some true gems as well as a few absolute howlers. The most impressive works tend to be by the artists that standard history books recommend: Ingres, Géricault, Degas, and Corot. (As it happens, Ingres was the only one of these to win the Prix de Rome; all the rest got to Italy on their own.)

There are a number of paintings of historical interest: self-portraits by Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-64), Adophe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89), as well as the Prix de Rome-winning efforts by the young Ingres (1780-1867) and others. The freshest academic works tend to be small landscapes and views of studio interiors, and their evocative light and faithful accounting of everyday objects convey a genuine affection for the subject matter. Among these, two small paintings by Achilles-Etna Michallon (1792-1822) have a richness of color throughout a full, vivid range of tones, while several by François-Marius Granet (1775-1849) have lively hues except in their somewhat indeterminate shadows. Among the most affecting of the academic works is Bouguereau’s Teresa, c. 1854, a portrait that depicts every shading of skin and fold of garment with supple, evenhanded brilliance. The patient, slightly anxious expression makes one wonder of the model: Who was she? Was she happy? An especially sensitive photograph would elicit the same response, but here the mesmerizing craftsmanship prompts an additional question: Can you believe it’s just paint?

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres Françoise-Marius Granet 1807-09 Oil on canvas, 29 3/8 x 24 7/8 inches Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Françoise-Marius Granet 1807-09 Oil on canvas, 29 3/8 x 24 7/8 inches Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet

The larger paintings are mostly historical or mythological scenes, and these impress mainly with the seriousness of their sentiment-or more accurately, of their manufacturing of sentiment. These works are the most revealing of the limits of academic training of the time, which inculcated an exactitude of contours and an intractable modeling of volumes. In moderation these are hardly bad goals, but the regimen seems to have discouraged even the occasional use of more generous gestures to provide a sense of scale, and to have denied color any function beyond decorating the facts of drawing. Cabanel’s enormous Death of Moses, 1851, suffers from the same philosophy of coloration apparent in such smaller works as his famous Birth of Venus, 1863 (of which a replica currently hangs among the works from Dahesh’s permanent collection). The hues are heightened to the point of illumination, but no further; they give no momentum to his gestures. In a group portrait of musicians by François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869), the hues are garishly out of control, never settling to establish the pictorial weight of any element; his method, apparently, was to compensate for each overripe form by making the next more so.

Not that such paintings are incompetent. If anything, they are too competent at limited goals. Typical among the more appealing works here are the two large paintings by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (1789-63) that convincingly render the appearance of individual objects, but lend little weight to their formal roles, so that there’s no overall gathering of impulse. The best of the academic works here tend to look limp next to Degas’ tiny, incisive pencil sketch, Study of a Boy Standing with Arms Raised, 1856. And most tell us nothing that we don’t already know about our immediate world (how an arm has volume, or skin is variously smooth and creased), while trying too hard to tickle us with technique and imagery.

Some visitors may be struck by the omission in the exhibition-in the wall text, labels, publicity materials, or catalogue-of any discussion of the difference between academic and great traditional painting. Of course, this would be asking the Museum to chart a territory hardly explored by the Academy itself-nor, ironically, by a great many contemporary art thinkers more absorbed in issues of semiotics and anthropology.

Thoreau’s unflattering view of institutional thinking doesn’t really apply. (“In short, as a snowdrift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up…”) The intensity of effort apparent in Ingres to Degas suggests a different mental condition. The Academy avidly pursued half-truths rather than succumbing sleepily to whole delusions. To borrow another quote (this time Delacroix’ uncharitable and not completely justifiable comment about Ingres), it represents “the complete expression of an incomplete mind”-that is, it put its full devotion into a small range of expressive possibilities, heedless of the rest.
What is the rest? This amounts to asking: what does art do, uniquely and surpassingly well? More eloquently, on its own visual terms, than literature, illustration, or philosophy?

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot Rome: Castel Sant' Angelo c1826-27, revised c1835 Oil on canvas, 13 1/2" x 18 1/4" Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Rome: Castel Sant' Angelo c1826-27, revised c1835 Oil on canvas, 13 1/2" x 18 1/4" Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

The answer has to do with a particular kind of visual intelligence, one evident in a undated portrait in the exhibition by Géricault (1791-1824). In The Old Italian Woman, the largess of the drawing, pitting the steady vertical development of the features against the great folds of headgear and garments, impart a scale and character to each element. Géricault’s colors serve not as accents but as continuous, restless pressures on the momentum of forms. The result is a gravity of expression largely absent from the work next to it, a painting of the same model by Jean-Victor Schnetz (1787-1870), which has a felicitous light but a dutiful rather than inspired summation of the subject. Where Géricault re-creates in the language peculiar to painting, Schnetz documents with evenhanded skill. (The Géricault was formerly also attributed to Schnetz, which is surprising considering the entirely different order of articulation.)

Géricault’s thinking seems to be not “How do I make a picture of this?” but: “What is the unprejudiced, purely visual story of my subject, at this hour, in this light?”, “What impulses emerge on my palette?” and “Where do I find a toehold for these contrary, autonomous impulses on my canvas?” The simple ingredients of lines and colors end up as a surprising, expressive fact, so coherent as to seem practically inevitable. (Though likely any outcome would have seemed both surprising and inevitable, given Géricault’s gifts.)

Among the other gems in Ingres to Degas are two small landscapes by Corot (1796-1875), quietly monumental in their breadth of formal conception. In Rome: Castel Saint Angelo, ca.1826-27 (revised ca. 1835), the brusque emergence of domes, surmounted by tiny statues, into an expansively pale sky has a poignancy quite unlike any other landscapes here. Corot’s mastery of color continues into the subtly weighted planes that brace a nest of boats in the foreground. An Old Italian Woman, 1857, by Degas (1834-1917) seems a bit studied, but his darkly brilliant Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to the Inferno (1857-58) vividly captures the figures’ resilient loneliness.

Gustave Moreau Hesiod and the Muses c1860 Oil on canvas, 52 3/8 x 52 3/8 inches Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau, Hesiod and the Muses c1860 Oil on canvas, 52 3/8 x 52 3/8 inches Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau

Perhaps the oddest masterpiece here is Hesiod and the Muses, ca. 1860, by Gustave Moreau (1826-98). This painting combines an academic attachment to theatrical refinement and the exotic with some distinctly non-academic traits: fuzzy contours, “unrealistic” coloration, and large areas of sketchy, unidentifiable marks. Despite its domineering rose tones, the colors give force and definition to its internal rhythms. (Compare its authenticity of gesture to the weightless flings of limbs and wings in the Perseus, 1869, down the wall by Joseph-Paul Blanc, 1846-1904, or to Bouguereau’s The Battle Between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, 1852, a tour de force of all-over polishing that conveys more about the nature of a centaur’s teeth or a fabric’s wrinkles than the energy of a human form springing from the earth: imagine Veronese, marinated until the sinews soften, and then buffed to an impenetrable shine.)

One of the most compelling personalities of Ingres to Degas is Ingres himself, who as director of the French Academy at Rome from 1835 to 1840 inspired a large following of devoted students. His philosophy rings through a statement quoted in a Dahesh’s brochure: “The brushwork, as accomplished as it may be, should not be visible: otherwise it prevents the illusion, immobilizes everything. Instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought, it betrays the hand.” This compulsion to disguise process puts him, of course, in a headlong collision course with all modernist thinking. Even though we may not completely sympathize with his intentions, however, his works have a thoroughly original intensity. He is, arguably, the only artist here to be both a great academician and a great painter. Although somewhat stilted in their poses, the many figures in his 1801 Prix de Rome-winning painting convincing fill their pictorial roles. The colors of his portrait of Granet from 1807-09 occupy their contours vividly, but with measure; after the great swelling of the coat, the lapels surprise with their brilliant lightness, but still give way before the ruddy orb of the face. (And Ingres’ hues rigorously pace the intervals of the facial features within; compare to Vernet’s affectionate but comparatively flaccid portrait of his daughter down the wall.)

As it turned out, Ingres’ unique combination of abilities were not transmissible. The large Polites produced in 1834 by his pupil Hippolyte Flandrin has the master’s impeccable modeling and luminosity, but not the expansiveness of formal conception; there’s simply not the same momentum of rhythm. Radiating a careful gorgeousness, a nine-foot long vision of airborne angels by student Henri Lehmann (1814-82) manages to tame Ingres’ most interesting urges.

The artwork in Ingres to Degas is arranged thematically, moving as the wall text explains from Ingres’ academicism of the 1830s through the eclecticism of the 1880s. But it’s rewarding to trace another trail crossing back and forth over the academic divide. Corot studied with Bertin and Michallon (both represented here) and bested them; after a brief and unsatisfying period of study with Bouguereau, Matisse (not here, obviously) profited from studying with Moreau; Moreau was a close friend and mentor to Degas, who in turn was an avid collector of the work of Corot and especially Ingres. (Indeed, Degas owned Ingres’ oil sketch for his Prix de Rome-winning painting mentioned above.)

The nicely illustrated catalogue produced for the Dahesh installation contains the first-hand accounts of some of the intrepid students who journeyed to Rome, and in it their energy and perceptions sometimes come through more clearly than in their art. Their artwork says more about the expectations of the Academy-and, one can imagine, of contemporary tastes in general. Ingres to Degas intriguingly reveals these expectations were, and we are left to consider how they have changed since. For me, the exhibition suggests that as much as the Academy hoped to regulate style, in the long run style wasn’t even really the point. Painting turned out to be more complicated and subtle. The real temperament of a work-the vigor of conception that makes Corot, though stylistically challenged, a truer descendant of Titian than is Bouguereau-depends more on personal insights than either technique or cultural predispositions.

Curiously, in the post-Modern world, style appears to have re-emerged as a major player. The Dahesh’s dedication to its principles and the quality of its installations already make it a welcome addition to the New York scene, but the current emphasis on style makes the Museum’s mission ever more relevant. Likely enough, the Museum will find allies in unexpected places.

Consider Gerhard Richter and his forty-year exploration of various modern and post-modern styles. Bouguereau, to me, is the more impressive stylist. (Yes, I hasten to acknowledge that Richter’s art, properly viewed, is an investigation of our responses to his feelings about society’s attitudes about the role of art in postwar Germany. But is this really so different from Bouguereau, who seems every moment to be watching us watch him converse with painting conventions?) As with the Academy in the nineteenth century-and some thinkers on art today-Richter’s work shows no awareness of the distinction between academic and great traditional art. This puts his philosophy emphatically at odds with the lifework of such twentieth-century masters as Mondrian, Matisse, and de Kooning. And if we are to applaud Richter for his soulless interpretations of any number of styles, shouldn’t we also clap Bouguereau on the back, though he sterilized just one?