- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Paris of the decadent belle epoque may seem far off indeed from the politically correct Washington of today, but the National Gallery of Art and its allies are out to prove otherwise next week with Sunday’s opening of the “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” show.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate kinship between two capitals,” French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte said with infectious bonhomie Wednesday before black-tie festivities celebrating the installation of more than 240 works by the French artist and his peers.

The exhibit, which curators saw as good use of the valuable collections of the National Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute and the Musee Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, France (among other lenders), is more a travelogue than a conventional — or chronological — showcase of the artist’s work. It highlights in graphic form the delights and despair of an era too often romanticized as a bohemian idyll.

“This exhibit is a work of art in and of itself … a veritable movable feast for the senses,” Mr. Levitte told the dinner audience. “Paris has moved to the banks of the Potomac.” (Ah, oui, but the engaging diplomat also admitted in private that today’s Montmartre is something of a tourist trap and a far cry of the pretty but often lurid pictures on the gallery’s walls.)

Such a dichotomy didn’t stop Time Warner Inc. from underwriting the show — its first sponsorship at the National Gallery — and it was no stretch for Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Parsons to compare the painter’s ability to “capture the pace of modern life” to the work of 80,000 employees in his far-flung media domain. (The exhibit does, after all, make a point of the importance of the large poster advertisements of the fin de siecle.)

“I thought the connection too irresistible to pass up,” Mr. Parsons told the VIP-heavy crowd, which included Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer (chatting in French with cultural attache Roland Celette); Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; and collector-philanthropists Albert and Shirley Small, Robert and Clarice Smith, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Calvin and Jane Cafritz, and Marc and Jacqueline Leland.

Glamorously gowned Countess (Anita) d’Anselme lingered in the galleries to share tales about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the great-uncle of her husband, Count Marc d’Anselme. The artist’s father “didn’t want to hear about his dwarfish son and his affairs with prostitutes, but his mother had pity on him,” she noted. “She felt guilty about his [congenital deformities] because of the family’s history of consanguinity. Both his parents and [two of] his grandparents were cousins.”

Corcoran Gallery of Art Director David Levy was sighted in the throng, as well. “I assume we lent something because I got an invite,” he said offhandedly while surveying the scene. (It turned out to be Edgar Degas’ “Cafe-Concert” pastel from the William Clark Collection.)

The gallery converted the spacious East Wing into a combination cafe and bistro for the night, with cabaret music by an accordion trio. Waiters donned French-style two-button jackets and long-skirted tabliers (aprons) instead of the usual tuxedos.

The hors d’oeuvres would have made La Coupole proud: sauteed quail eggs en brioche, pate and belon oysters. Later, guests dined on onion soup, poulet bresse with lyonnaise potatoes, appropriately ripened cheeses and chocolate mousse with strawberry gratin before an even more delicious last look at the exhibit in nearly empty galleries.

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