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How French art got to Impressionism

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Aug. 5, 2002 at 10:40 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The Morgan Library is giving a short summer course in French drawing guaranteed to give its visitors a better understanding of how art moved smoothly from Neoclassicism to Romanticism to Impressionism in the 19th century.

The Morgan's painless pedagogy comes in the form of an instructive exhibition of nearly 100 works on paper titled "David to Cezanne: 19th Century French Drawings," to run through Sept. 8. The library is better known for its 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish and French pre-1800 drawings, but it has dramatically increased its holdings of later French art through recent bequests.

This newly acquired material, plus some loans from private collections, make up a show that starts with the work of exponents of neo-classicism and romanticism - Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix and J.-A.-D. Ingres - and moves on to works by Impressionist and Symbolist painters such as Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne.

Few of the artists fall precisely into one category or another but the line of development is evident. What almost all these artists have in common is an amazing draftsmanship that is notable for its constant contrasting of detailed imagery emerging from sketched in backgrounds. One of the exceptions is Ingres, whose drawings rarely rely on suggestion.

The most arresting works in the show is Ingres' 1839 "Odalisque with Slave," a meticulous study of a sinuously erotic harem beauty that leaves little to the imagination and is in complete contrast to Pierre Paul Prud'hon's refined black and pink chalk study of a female nude in a classic pose, one hip thrust almost innocently forward.

Ingres had mastered his art by the time he was 13, as evidence by a precise profile portrait of a schoolmate drawn while he was a student at the Toulouse Academy. Altogether, the show offers eight works by Ingres that in themselves make a visit to the Morgan worthwhile, especially the powerful pencil portrait of his mentor, Guillaume Lethuse.

There is a fleeting obeisance to the ancien regime in the form of a crisp and very appealing pencil self-portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, Queen Marie Antoinette's favorite portrait painter, followed by chalk, pencil, and ink drawings in the classic style by Antoine-Denis Chaudet, including one titled "Esther Before Ahasuerus" that was presented to Napoleon when he was First Consul.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute's fame as a botanical artist who had Empress Josephine as a client is recalled by an album of his lovely flower drawings. Louis Leopold Boilly's animated style of characterization is exemplified by a sheet of paper bearing heads of eight of his family members and servants, and Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Josephine's favorite portraitist and miniaturist, has an oval chalk portrait of opera composer Andre Gretry in the show.

Not all of these artists achieved fame or had royal patronage, and many of their names are unfamiliar to American art lovers. Francois Bonvin's rich charcoals of ordinary people doing everyday tasks are a rewarding surprise, and Alphonse Legros' landscapes, more popular in England than in France, are a revelation of the realism that can be achieved in the thin medium of watercolor.

However, the big names in French art tend to dominate the show. Gustave Dore's gouache with spooky white highlights, titled "The Finding of Moses," is a good advertisement for the artist's fame as a Biblical illustrator, while a charcoal landscape by Henri Fantin-Latour's is an atypical work for this renowned painter of flower arrangements.

A pastel titled "Mlle. Becat at the Café Ambassadeurs," depicting an entertainer bowing in the glow of stage footlights, catches the very essence of the Degas' introspective art, just as a chalk study of peasants in a field silhouetted against a twilight sky sums up the overriding spiritual theme of Jean-Francois Millet's best work.

Henri-Joseph Harpignies' watercolor landscapes of the 1860s catches the interactive rhythms of nature and manmade monuments and are just as fresh and immediate as the masterful chalk portrait of a black man by Theodore Gericault. Camille Corot is represented by a brown ink sketch of an Italian landscape that is a miracle of transparency.

There is a fascinating watercolor of the "Royal Tiger" at the Paris zoo by Delacroix and a typical scene of the Paris socialites out for a carriage ride by Constantin Guys. Paul Huet's Normandy watercolor, "Cliffs at Etretat," has hints of the advent of Impressionism in light filtered through seaspray, a suitable introduction to a watercolor landscape by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a conte crayon sketch by Georges Seurat, and a pencil study of card-playing men by Paul Cezanne.

The most enigmatic work in the show is Redon's "The Fool (Intuition)," a symbolist portrait of an aesthetic looking man raising a finger with a sharpened nail to his chin, one of an 1876 series of melancholy charcoal drawings influenced by the poems of Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Pierre Baudelaire. It exudes a sense of uneasy mystery that Redon and only a few other artists have been able to achieve.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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