“America Collects” tells a largely by-the-book story of the French 18th century across eight stylishly hung bays. In the early 1700s, the Baroque gave way to the more sentimental Rococo style, typified by soft pinks and blues, light curves and amorous gods and maidens. Eight paintings by Boucher in this exhibition epitomize the mature Rococo, among them a soft-edged portrait (lent by the Harvard Art Museums) of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, as well as “The Toilette of Venus” and “The Bath of Venus,” twin pictures of that nude goddess cocooned in silks and smothered by cherubs. Figures harden as the French Revolution approaches, and the century ends with an erasure of froufrou and a praise of moral virtues drawn from Greek and Roman examples.
So far, so 18th. The more interesting narrative, though, is the American one that ripples beneath this show: how a nonaristocratic elite in a new nation embraced and made use of French art from the Enlightenment. As early as 1815, the year a defeated Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, his older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, arrived in the United States with a trunk full of French paintings. He displayed them at his country house in New Jersey, and sometimes lent them to new American academies. One of his prizes was Noël-Nicolas Coypel’s “The Abduction of Europa” (1726-27), now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Zeus, in the form of a bull, carries Europa through a churning sea, while water nymphs surf on goggle-eyed fish and putti divebomb the waves. It may look dainty and vaporous now, but to art lovers in the new American republic, this was the hottest of imports, and an example to live up to.
French portraiture, too, offered Americans a means to ground themselves in an 18th-century tradition — though it also afforded a nice way to decorate. There are a few neo-Classical examples here, such as the sassy selfie “Le Discret” (circa 1791), in which Joseph Ducreux paints himself shushing the spectator against a solid brown background. Most American collectors, through, preferred their France with frills. The Alabama socialite Eugenia Woodward Hitt, whose husband was heir to a margarine fortune, acquired two grand, musical paintings by the portraitist François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775): a young aristocrat in a lace collar strumming a guitar, and a pair of silk-clad children playing with a dog and an instrument in a shadowy grove. Another prime Drouais portrait, of a pink-cheeked marquise in a richly embroidered dress, was snatched up by an Indiana industrialist and now belongs to Ball State University.
Perhaps you see the irony. The Americans who bought these paintings were the beneficiaries of a French philosophical tradition that revered liberty and equality, but they expressed it by collecting the possessions of the class that went to the guillotine. By the late 19th century, American industrialists were kitting out their homes in New York or Baltimore with gilded armoires and Fragonard panels, eating off Sèvres porcelain, and throwing Versailles-themed costume balls.
Americans were much slower to collect neo-Classical painting. The major examples here — above all, Pierre Peyron’s “Death of Alcestis,” up from Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art, a celebration of Greek self-sacrifice far removed from the Rococo’s naughty nymphs and shepherds — were acquired in the past 30 years. Temperamentally, Americans were fans of Lafayette. Aesthetically, Marie Antoinette was more their style.
The same economic upheavals that brought wealth to a new American collecting class coursed through Paris in the mid-19th century, when the young Bazille arrived from southern Montpellier to train as a doctor. He was a product of the new bourgeoisie, and when he arrived he enrolled in a painting studio, met Monet, Renoir and Sisley, and gave up medicine for a new, antiacademic art. In 1870, France declared war on Prussia, Bazille enlisted, and by the end of the year he was killed, aged just 28.
The National Gallery’s Bazille retrospective, seen last year at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, examines the seven-year career of this specter of modern French painting. He learned quickly from the realist examples of Courbet and Manet, and in a smoldering self-portrait from 1865 he paints himself looking over his shoulder, his white shirt sleeve and pinkish forehead rendered as flat, brushy expanses. That same summer, he went to Fontainebleau with his studio mate Monet, who injured his leg; Bazille’s “The Improvised Field Hospital” pictures that friend and rival in his sickbed, painted with brash wet-on-wet strokes.
Cunning pairings of Bazille’s work with that of his friends not only clarifies his achievement but maps his social world. Monet’s large “Women in the Garden,” an early endeavor in plein-air group portraiture, hangs beside Bazille’s “Family Gathering,” a stiffer showcase of bourgeois leisure and light effects. A gray still life of a dead, trussed heron is paired with a painting of the same bird by Sisley, as well as a portrait by Renoir of Bazille at work on his avian death fugue. The whole crew gets together in Bazille’s “Studio on the Rue La Condamine,” where they’re joined by the slightly older Manet — who finished Bazille’s work by painting in the younger man himself.
As much as “America Collects,” the Bazille retrospective is a show about art in society — about how ideas become images, and how those images circulate among friends and across oceans. Ideas don’t stay put, and some 18th-century virtues endure even, perhaps especially, when they aren’t fully realized. Those virtues can be named as liberty, equality and fraternity — or, if you prefer the local argot, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
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