December 2003

French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803--1873
September 3 - November 2, 2003
Dahesh Museum of Art, 580 Madison Avenue at 57th Street, New York City

The Dahesh Museum
Reclaiming Academic Art

by Louis Torres

Museum openings these days are not ordinarily cause for celebration. Do we really need yet another "MoCA"--as in MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), BMoCA (the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, in Colorado), or just plain MoCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles)? New York City's version is the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which does not use an acronym, referring to itself as "The New Museum" (though it was founded in 1977). The city's newest museum is the Dahesh Museum of Art. The good news is that, in contrast with the work installed in MoCAs across the land, the art its title refers to really is art--more specifically, the painting and sculpture of academically trained European artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Adolphe-William Bouguereau, and Jean-Léon Gérôme (mentor to the American painter Thomas Eakins, featured in these pages in August).

Actually, the Dahesh Museum is not new in the strictest sense. It began operating in 1995, in cramped second-floor quarters on Fifth Avenue, attracting a loyal following despite the long-standing animus of modernist and postmodernist scholars and critics against academic art.[*] As the Dahesh's new director, Peter Trippi, explains:

The warmest response to our exhibitions and publications has come from younger people intrigued by artworks they do not normally see in university lecture halls or other museum galleries. Indeed, these are viewers who do not carry the "baggage" of modernist thinking about the nineteenth century and are thus open to considering all of this period's arts in a clear-eyed manner.

Such candor on Trippi's part is refreshing in the context of today's artworld, but is not likely to earn him any praise from fellow directors, or from most critics.

Inaugural Exhibitions

On September 3, the Dahesh celebrated its reopening with two inaugural exhibitions--one truly major (including loans from some three dozen other institutions, as well as private collections), French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873; the other, more homegrown, Reframing Academic Art: Masterworks of the Dahesh Museum of Art (on view in an expanded form through February 8, 2004). The artworld (not least, critics at the New York Times) took notice, nudged in no small measure, I suspect, by the fact that the Dahesh had moved to an impressive new location in the former IBM Gallery of Science and Art on Madison Avenue, which has been handsomely renovated and redesigned for the purpose.

French Artists in Rome, originally organized by the French Academy in Rome--more on which below--consisted of some 130 paintings and sculptures by young French artists, many of whom were pensionnaires (resident student artists on scholarship), who lived and worked for up to five years at the Academy's Villa Medici [more], high atop a hill overlooking the fabled Italian city. Most notable among this group were Bouguereau (1851-1853) and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1805-1810), who later served as Director of this Academy outpost from 1835 to 1840. Other artists in the exhibition--such as Gérôme, Théodore Géricault, and Edgar Degas, studied independently in Rome during the half century in question. One of the unexpected pleasures of the exhibition was discovering estimable work by painters and sculptors whose names had hitherto been known only to specialists in nineteenth-century French art. Though the exhibition has ended, readers may still savor some of its pleasures through its excellent 64-page catalogue.

The Catalogue

French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873 (translated from the original French and adapted for the Dahesh's somewhat smaller version of the exhibition organized in Spring 2003 at the Villa Medici) provides an ideal introduction to French academic art for the general reader, as well as a useful reference work for students and scholars. In his Introduction, curator and editor Roger Diederen offers this perspective on the experience of the young pensionnaires:

The important rite of passage that countless French artists experienced by living and working in Rome is one of the key aspects that shaped academic art throughout the 19th century. After students at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris won the prestigious prix de Rome competition, they were awarded a residency of up to five years at the Villa Midici underwritten by the French government. This Roman sojourn was intended to immerse the artist in the great heritage of ancient and Renaissance masters and to nurture future generations who would sustain this revered tradition.

A brief annotated essay by co-curator Olivier Bonfait and Antoinette Le Normand-Romain offers a fascinating, informative history of the French Academy in Rome, which was founded in 1666 by Louis XIV and reestablished between 1795 and 1798. Their account of the students' arrival each January is told mostly through the words of the students themselves (most of whom were between twenty and thirty years old), quoted from letters they wrote to their parents over the decades. "Finally we arrived at the Academy, our hearts beating fiercely," wrote one. "Mr. Ingres received us cordially, took us on a tour of the principal rooms of the villa, and then we dined. The pensionnaires received us with a great show of friendship." Yet another could likewise not contain his enthusiasm:

I went straightaway to my room, which had been ready for several days since they were expecting us. My studio, big and quite beautiful, is right next to my room. I have a view of the gardens and the mansion, which is magnificent, as well as on the beautiful Roman countryside. It is the most marvelous site that one can imagine . . . every day I have it before my eyes.

Not surprisingly, the pensionnaires often made paintings of their rooms and studios. One particularly fine example in both the exhibition and the catalogue is The Artist in his Room at the Villa Medici (1818) by Léon Cogniet--which the British art historian Helen Langdon, in a review of another exhibition, has aptly characterized:

[The artist] shows himself leaning against his bed, reading his first letter from home. Around his monk-like room are emblems of his occupation; a palette, a guitar, props for future history paintings a helmet, shield, and sword and a walking stick, hat and cloak, suggesting his excursions in the Campagna. Above all the window is flung open, framing two cypress trees and a stretch of Roman countryside, and filling the shadowy space with bright sunlight. It is an intensely evocative work, which seems to crystallise the interests of the painter in Italy in the early 19th century, suggesting both the lingering demand for historical compositions, and a growing passion for direct and spontaneous landscape painting, a vision newly revealed by the light and beauty of the South.

Bonfait and Normand-Romain note, however, that one's arrival "could be met with unexpected moments, marked by schoolboy pranks and jokes." In one instance, the new arrivals were made to dine "under atrocious conditions, on a table without a tablecloth, lit only by two measly smoky candles, all in order to give us a dreadful idea of the life that we were about to enjoy."

As in any boarding school, there were regulations to be followed, not least those regarding the curriculum, which was precise and demanding. Cumpulsory exercises had to be completed on schedule and sent to Paris for evaluation. For example, painting students had to produce life-size nude figures from live models, copies of old master paintings, and then history paintings. The sculptors' projects included marble copies of antique statues, plaster models of sculptures in the round and, in their last year, "a study of a nude life-size figure of their choice and its translation into marble."

The Academy's impressive collection of antique statuary grew with time but, like so much associated with nineteenth-century art education, it suffered as modernist (and postmodernist) sensibilites became entrenched in the twentieth. It is dismaying but not surprising to learn that the collection has been depleted "as a result of the 20th century's contempt for casts," to quote the authors, so that today "only a small portion of it survives, in mediocre condition" and is rarely displayed. It was not just plaster casts that the modernists scorned, however--it was virtually everything associated with academic training. As the influential painting teacher R. H. Ives Gammell lamented in his Twilight of Painting (1946): "The ultimate importance of Modern Painting in the history of art will be seen to lie in the fact that it discredited and virtually destroyed the great technical traditions of European painting, laboriously built up through the centuries by a long succession of men of genius. The loss of these traditions has deprived our potential painters of their rightful heritage, a heritage without which it will be impossible for them to give full scope to such talent as they may possess."

Excursions outside the Academy, both in Rome and to the countryside were an integral part of the program of study, affording opportunities to make and collect studies and make paintings of architecture, nature, and of human subjects as well. The Old Italian Woman (not dated), by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) is a compelling example. Set against a dark background, and framed by a pointed white cloth atop her head and another draped around her shoulders, the peasant woman's weathered face, heavy-lidded eyes, and resolute mouth reflect qualities that appealed to other painters as well. In a work by another artist pictured beside Géricault's, she is posed as a fortune-teller, and she is reported to have appeared in at least four other paintings of the time.

Study of an Italian Model (also undated), by Jules Lenepveu (pensionnaire, 1848-1852; Director of the Villa Medici, 1873-1878), exemplifies the sort of qualities painters would find in Italian models. Like that of the old woman, the young man's face--his marked by soulful eyes and a contemplative mien--is set against a monochromatic background (light-colored in this instance). His simple white blouse contrasts sharply with his bronzed skin. Gérôme, too, had painted his face, and Edgar Degas had drawn studies of him "in various poses." The model in Théodore Chassériau's A Young Herdsman from the Pontine Marshes (1841), not included in the catalogue, is of a similar type. As the exhibition label informed visitors, Chassériau had noted that "this forcefully expressive head represented one of 'these beautiful types, painted after nature.'" Like many of his contemporaries, he looked upon the population living outside Rome as "'still uncorrupted by civilization.'"

The remainder of the catalogue is divided into seven sections, corresponding to those in the exhibition, each beginning with brief introductory remarks: The Villa Medici: A World Apart, The School of Rome: Ingres and David d'Angers, The Nude and Drapery, City and Landscape: Between Myth and Nature, The Roman People: From the Heroic to the Picturesque, From Ingres's Classicism to the Triumph of Eclecticism, and Beyond Rome: Classicism of the Imagination. Some sixty works are pictured--all in full color--with about half given an entire page. Finally, there is a checklist of all the works in the exhibition, noting the dates for each artist, and which were pensionnaires, in addition to providing basic facts about the particular painting or sculpture (with dimensions in both centimeters and inches). The page number is given for works pictured in the catalogue.

Happily, a nearly full-page reproduction is granted to one of the true gems of the exhibition, Ingres's sensitive portrait (1807-1809)--set against a dramatic vista of Rome--of his fellow painter François-Marius Granet [the painting suffers terribly in this online reproduction, but some of its special quality is still discernible]. For other representative works, see Malaria (1848-49), by Ernest Hébert (pensionnaire, 1840-44), and the images accompanying "Roman Holiday," a brief review of French Artists in Rome by N. F. Karlins.

If I have one regret about the catalogue, it is that it omits an image of another of the finest works in the exhibition, Gérôme's striking Portrait of a Young Roman Woman, painted in 1884--when he was a mere youth of twenty--during one of his many back-packing tours of the Roman countryside. The painting is in a private collection in Rome, which perhaps explains why it could not be pictured. One can only hope that it will be loaned again one day for another exhibition.

The value of academic training was eloquently defended by the British painter Harold Speed in his manual The Practice and Science of Drawing (1913)--which has become something of an underground classic among artists seeking to hone their technical skills. As Speed argued, "it is eminently necessary for the student to train his eye accurately to observe the forms of things by the most painstaking of drawings. . . . For how can the draftsman who does not know how to draw accurately the cold, commonplace view of an object, hope to give expression to the subtle differences presented by the same thing seen under the excitement of strong feeling?" The truth of Speed's words is evident in the works by the young pensionnaires at the French Academy in Rome. By the time Speed had penned those words, however, the academic tradition of preparing artists for their profession had already begun to fall into disrepute. The Dahesh Museum of Art seems well-positioned to play an influential role in reclaiming it for present and future generations.

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*Some years ago, for example, New York Times critic Grace Glueck declared the following regarding Bouguereau's painting A Soul Brought to Heaven (1878): "To our jet-age minds, there is something ludicrous about a winged human body lumbering through the air. . . . The angels look like awkward frogmen paddling clumsily with their hands and feet as if in a desperate underwater rescue attempt." What Glueck offered was not simply an interpretation of A Soul Brought to Heaven, but a deliberate distortion--unless one is to think that this experienced critic was blissfully unaware of the meaning of the words lumbering, awkward, clumsily, and desperate . Whatever the explanation, she was safe in the knowledge that most of her readers would not travel to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Bouguereau exhibition (which had originated in Paris), and that, in any case, it would close within the week. Further, she may have assumed, as her reference to "our jet-age minds" suggests, that her readers shared her scorn for the French academic painter and simply would not care what she wrote. In stark contrast, Louise d'Argencourt--who conceived the exhibition, William Bouguereau, 1825-1905, and authored the catalogue of the same name--wrote this about Bouguereau's painting: "A serene expression and perfect repose [are] visible in the features of the young girl." Viewers can judge for themselves. (I first wrote on this matter in "On Responsible Arts Criticism," Aristos, August 1984.)

Exhibition Catalogue

French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873 may be purchased at the Dahesh Museum of Art gift shop, 580 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022. Price: $29.95, plus applicable sales tax in New York State, and $4.00 for shipping. (212) 759-0606. Credit card payment accepted.

Front cover (sans title): Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-64), Figure Study: Polites, Son of Priam, Observing the Movements of the Greeks towards Troy (1834)

More about Academic Art -- from the Archives of Aristos

[The following back issues of Aristos (1982-1997) are available for purchase:]

"Bouguereau's Legacy," by Richard Lack, September 1982.
"Impressionism and the Decline of Painting," by R. H. Ives Gammell, May 1990. [Excerpted and adapted from Gammell's Twilight of Painting, first published in 1946, reprinted in 1990, available in paperback for $30.00, plus applicable sales tax and shipping, from the Dahesh Museum gift shop (see catalogue ordering information above).] See also "R. H. Ives Gammell," by Michelle Marder Kamhi, from the same issue.
"On Drawing," by Harold Speed, November 1989. [Introduction (excerpted) and chapter on drawing from Speed's The Practice and Science of Drawing.]
"The New Dawn of Painting," by Louis Torres, March 1986. [Review of Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston Painters, the manifesto of a group of contemporary academic painters associated with the American Society of Classical Realism.]
"Victorian Treasures: Paintings from the McCormick Collection," by Michelle Marder Kamhi, March 1987. See also "A Jaundiced Eye: Modern Scholarship on Victorian Art," by Louis Torres, in the same issue.