French painter rescued from art's dustbin

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 11, 2002 at 10:06 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- A French 19th century artist who used photography as a compositional aid and was popular with American millionaire collectors has been rescued from near oblivion by a revelatory show at the National Academy of Design Museum, the first exhibition given PAJ Dagnan-Bouveret in more than a century.

An exhibition of 70 paintings, watercolors and drawings by the artist, organized by the Dahesh Museum, introduces to American art lovers an academic painter whose work pre-figured 20th century photo-realism. Titled "Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition," it can be seen at the National Academy through Dec. 8 and at the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fla., Jan. 3-Feb. 9.

Born in 1852, the artist lived until 1929 and experienced the eclipse of academic art, represented by the Paris Salon shows, by Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Abstraction. At the time of his death he was almost forgotten and museums had already relegated his canvases to storage, where the organizers of the current exhibition found them.

Probably his finest work, widely acclaimed when it was first exhibited in 1886, is "Pardon in Brittany," owned but almost never exhibited by New York's Metropolitan Museum. It depicts a frieze-like religious procession of black-garbed Breton peasants, the women wearing white, crisply starched "Flying Nun" headgear, passing a lineup of begging paupers.

Although Dagnan-Bouveret kept his use of photography a secret, it is now known that "Pardon in Brittany" and other paintings of grouped figures were based on individual photographs reassembled collage-style for final work sketches. There are 50 photographs in the show that document this studio practice of the artist.

There is no doubt that photography helped Dagnan-Bouveret achieve the arresting realism that contemporary critics found so amazing and clients of his work, such as American financier George F. Baker and industrialist Henry Clay Frick, admired.

"Dagnan's professional agenda -- to become "modern" without abandoning academic models and ideals -- might not have succeeded without his enthusiasm for this new camera technology, which became part of his studio practice as it did for Degas, Vuillard, Gauguin, Rodin and an American contemporary, Thomas Eakins," said Gabriel P. Weisberg, a University of Minnesota professor who curated the show, in an interview.

The show spans the full range of Dagnan-Bouveret's output from academic studies and portraits to historical paintings, scenes of peasant life, and symbolist religious paintings that ended his career. The first works on exhibition are ink sketches of his family, writing, reading and sewing at the family dining table, dated 1872, the year he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he became the favorite student of Jean-Leon Gerome, a leading academic.

The artist had been orphaned young and brought up in comfortable circumstances by his grandparents in Melun, near Paris. The first portrait in the show, also 1872, is a stiff depiction of his grandfather that demonstrates promise despite its two-dimensional quality. Four years later, Dagnan-Bouveret competed for the French Academy's Prix de Rome, taking second place with a painting about the Trojan War but losing out on the chance to study in Italy.

His first sale to an American was an oil, "Hamlet and the Gravediggers," bought by Baker, known as "The Sphinx of Wall Street." He was equally successful selling his drawings, best represented by "A Bird Charmer at the Tuileries Garden," that was reproduced in the widely-read journal, La Monde Illustre, and commercially published as a separate print suitable for framing.

Dagnan-Bouveret was a strong influence on many American art students in Paris, especially Charles Stanley Reinhart of Pittsburgh, who would become a well-known illustrator. The artist's portrait sketch of Reinhart in pencil is one of the most beautifully rendered drawings in the show.

Frick, who also was from Pittsburgh, bought one of the artist's most controversial oils, "The Lord's Last Supper," that included the Dagnan-Bouveret family as devout observers balanced by only two apostles and a serving girl. Another religious work, "Madonna of the Rose," a Breton farm girl with a luminous baby half-obscured in her lap, was purchased by American tobacco heiress Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.

Genre paintings -- pictures of everyday life -- appealed to Dagnan-Bouveret, and those on display are "Wedding at the Photographer's" and "Nuptial Benediction," both closely observed rituals that were Salon crowd pleasers. When the artist noticed that viewers were only interested in the picture's story and not in his technique, he is said to have complained to his teacher, Gerome, who counseled him to concentrate on other subjects.

He briefly tried landscape, and there is a lush green one in the show to prove it. He also tried still life in the form of a brilliantly colored corner of his bedroom. And he continued to paint portraits, none better than a virile portrait of his handsome self in a white jacket, painting at his easel in the garden of his summer home, and a study of his wife, Anne-Marie, in summer white with a black cat.

Dagnan-Bouveret's attempt to reinvigorate the ailing French academic system was doomed to failure, but he left some wonderful work that should come out of storage , especially his naturalistic studies of rural life in Brittany.

A book by Weisberg has been published to accompany the show ("Against the Modern," Rutgers University Press, 178 pages, $65, softcover, $35).

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