- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

The National Gallery of Art has succeeded in the challenge of interpreting 18th-century French genre, or everyday, painting in its new exhibit “The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre” — with a few important elements missing.

On the one hand, it was clear that the shimmering, lighthearted paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francoise Boucher, Jean-Honore Fragonard and others were sure to draw crowds. I also knew that the more sober, philosophical paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and Louis-Leopold Boilly would interest visitors with their intellectual approach.

On the other hand, the complicated history of 18th-century France was not easy for the artists to put into context. It is obvious that the exhibition is not a strictly historical one or an all-encompassing view of that time. It’s useful to remember, however, that the two main events of this largely chaotic century were the 1715 death of Louis XIV — the fabled Sun King who made France great by starving the peasants — and the mass beheadings by the still-hungry underdogs during the French Revolution in the 1790s.

Even exhibit curator Philip Conisbee admits in the exhibit brochure: “To enter the world of Watteau or Chardin, imaginative effort is required, for they worked in a culture very different from ours.”

However, I found that with some effort, I could follow in the exhibition the fast-moving trajectory toward the now-famous excesses of the French Revolution. The elegant, even erotic, works by Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, made for the aristocracy in the earlier part of the century, kick off the show. Paintings Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Chardin produced for the bourgeoisie later in the century round it out.

Something important is missing, however: There are no images of the horrific side of the Enlightenment, the dominant philosophy of the times. I had to do a restudy of French history to remember that it was the very civilized Enlightenment — with its reasoned, humanitarian ideals and belief in “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (liberty, equality, fraternity) — that fueled the execution of King Louis XVI and the beheadings of Queen Marie Antoinette and much of the aristocracy.

No painted images of the French Revolution such as the guillotine, that famous decapitating instrument, appear in the exhibit. Mr. Conisbee says an art market for them could not have existed at the time, and none were painted. He says the artists went into hiding. Yet popular news printouts from that time were made and could have been included.

In literature, by contrast, there’s Charles Dickens’ unforgettable Madame Defarge of “A Tale of Two Cities,” who recorded the guillotine’s beheadings in her knitting.

Mr. Conisbee chose a subtler, more delicate approach for this carefully crafted, elegant show of 108 works from 60 top-notch collections. He decided to concentrate on the century’s painterly seesaw of fantasy and reality, of real and imaginary. Scenes created during the years just before the revolution are often painted as symbolic representations of moral truths.

Consider one of the exhibit’s most sensual works, Watteau’s “Venetian Pleasures” in the first gallery. Painted at the beginning of the century for aristocratic buyers, it shows a “fete galante” (a favorite Watteau subject) in which noblemen and noblewomen pursue pleasures in an imaginary park. A dancing man in an exotic costume bows to a pretty dancer dressed in glistening, pearly gray silk. Others flirt near a statue of Venus. Musicians play.

The work reveals what Mr. Conisbee calls “the guilt-free enjoyment of wealth.” Aristocrats had moved from the palace at Versailles to the town houses of Paris during the transitional Regency period following the death of Louis XIV.

In the next rooms, I had a pleasurable fill of idealized women and men and touching scenes of family life. Nicholas Lancret, a Watteau follower, adapted an imaginary, fairy-tale-like setting for “A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee With Some Children.”

The title may be stiff, but the characterizations of the mother and children are anything but. The mother gently offers the little girl some coffee, then an exotic drink. The older sister helps the younger with her fears. It’s the beginning of ideal-family-life painting that the Enlightenment would push even further.

Renderings of handsome silks and satins on male and female lovers come next, and Jean-Francois de Troy and Boucher were unrivaled in that field. I was seduced by the magnificent brocades and silver silk of the dresses in de Troy’s “The Declaration of Love.” Boucher obviously loved women, as his racy “A Lady Fastening Her Garter” amply attests.

By contrast, French art and society changed dramatically by midcentury, when Enlightenment ideals ruled firmly. Artists now painted to show in the Parisian salons where middle-class as well as aristocratic fans and patrons could see them. It was the birth of public art, and artists such as the famous and esteemed Chardin painted to please that public.

Here, I had to keep a careful eye for the artist’s moralizing details. In one of the high points of the exhibition, “Return From the Market,” an older servant oversees a younger servant’s meeting with a possible suitor.

Mr. Conisbee, who is National Gallery senior curator of European paintings, completes the exhibition with two more moves of his fantastic-rational seesaw presentation of French 18th-century art.

Fragonard looks back to the sensuality of Watteau and Boucher in his painting of a very naughty dalliance, “The Stolen Kiss.” Boilly, whose Parisian street scenes Mr. Conisbee showed in a magnificent survey, “The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France,” in 1995, rounds out this challenging, always scintillating, exhibition.

It’s a treat, and the curator and gallery must be congratulated for tackling such an ambitious undertaking.

WHAT: “The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard, Masterpieces of French Genre Painting”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 11


PHONE: 202/842-6353

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