French Academy gets its due in New York

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Sept. 22, 2003 at 4:22 PM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- The first blockbuster art show of the new season, a bicentennial tribute to the French Academy in Rome, is the opening exhibit of a new $4 million museum in midtown Manhattan devoted to European academic art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the only such institution in the United States.

Situated on the first three floors of the IBM building on Madison Avenue, the Dahesh Museum of Art steps boldly into the big league of art museums after nearly eight years in cramped upstairs quarters on Fifth Avenue. Its new home, tripling its former exhibition space, has all the obligatory amenities of a major museum including a jewel box auditorium, a large gift shop, and the chicest café in the city, plus access to the IBM buildings's bamboo-planted atrium.

The Dahesh collection was begun by the late Salim Moussa Achi, a wealthy Lebanese philosopher who wrote under the name "Dr. Dahesh." Achi intended to establish a museum of academic art in Beirut, but the outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon in 1975 put an end to that plan and the collection was transferred to New York. It was first opened to the public in 1995 and soon enjoyed the reputation of "the little museum that could."

Selected works from the Dahesh's 3,000-item permanent collection are on view under the banner "Reframing Academic Art," but the cause of heavy traffic since the museum opened its doors last week is a show of 130 paintings, sculptures and drawings titled "French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas," to run only in New York through Nov. 2.

It was organized by the French Academy in Rome to celebrate its 200th year in the landmark Villa Medici and attracted loans from the Louvre and museums all over France as well as several American collections.

Soon after Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Italy, he acquired the Renaissance Villa Medici high above Rome's Spanish Steps and opened the French Academy there in 1803 to expose young French artists, composers and writers to the classic traditions of Italian creativity. It has been a dominating factor in the Roman cultural landscape both literally and figuratively ever since.

French-born male artists under 30 years of age and single competed annually for the Rome Prize in the form of a fellowship to study at the academy for up to five years. These fellows were known as pensionnaires and were virtually assured successful careers when they returned to France because their art was given preference at Paris Salon exhibits where European and American collectors shopped for new talent.

The exhibit opens with views of the Villa Medici painted by pensionnaires including a charming study from ground below by Francois-Nicolas Chifflert and a distant view through an arch in the Boboli Gardens by Achille-Etna Michallon. Don't be put off by these unfamiliar names. The show is full of them, but that doesn't diminish the high quality of most of these artists' work.

It continues with portraits of pensionnaires by their fellow pensionnaires, including an idealized likeness of composer George Bizet by Francois-Charles Sellier and a disdainful image of sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, whose work adorns the old Paris Opera House, by Felix Giacomotti. There is also a series of busts of French Academy directors by pensionnaires including one of J.A.D. Ingres, who headed the academy from 1835 to 1840, by Auguste Otten.

The exhibit then gets down to the serious stuff -- paintings worthy of display at Paris Salons and of subject matter fashionable in an era where art was expected to uplift the viewer by means of moral precepts and sentimental renderings.

These subjects included historic events of a heroic nature, famous moments in Greek and Roman mythology, religious imagery and biblical scenes (the church was still an important player in the art market), happy peasants and rural brigands in native costume, anecdotal scenes drawn from literature including the works of Dante Aligheri, and -- to a lesser degree -- landscapes. In the mid-19th century art reflecting the exotic cultures of North Africa and the Middle East was added to the list as a category known as Orientalism.

The size of some of the canvases almost boggles the mind as does the larger-than-life plaster sculpture of a grimacing Spartacus by Denis Foyatier.

Several paintings, notably "The Death of Moses" by Alexander Cabanel, occupy whole walls of the museum, and Luc-Olivier Merson's monumental "Perseus," showing the hero as a muscular nude on horseback flourishing the severed head of Medusa, is an assault on the senses including the sexual. Male nudity prevailed in Academic art until Orientalism introduced female nudes to satisfy the voyeurism of male patrons.

A number of artists included in the show were not academy pensionnaires but spent time studying in Rome, sometimes taking classes at the French Academy. One of these, Edgar Degas, is represented by figure studies in pencil and a fine oil sketch of an old Italian woman. There are also some lovely Italian landscapes by J.B.C. Corot and an amazing little landscape by Leon Cogniet, "Souvenir of Lake Nemi," that is almost photographic in its realism.

By the 1850s artists tired of academic rhetoric, including the dictum that brushstrokes should never show on the surface of a painting, and moved on to newer modes of expression including Impressionism that reveled in visible brush strokes. Academic art was completely out of style by the early 1900s and gradually put into storage by most museums.

Thanks to the Dahesh under the leadership of its new director, Peter Trippi, formerly of the Brooklyn Museum, the public can now reacquaint itself with an important era of art history.

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