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Frivolity before the revolution

A National Gallery show of 18th century French painters hints at historic changes ahead.

October 21, 2003|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — The small genre masterpieces of the French painters of the 18th century are so frothy, so delightful, so charming and sometimes so naughty that it is hard to associate them with such weighty themes as philosophy and revolution.

But an extraordinary exhibition of these paintings, currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, makes the persuasive case that these great artists, no matter how frivolous their subjects often seemed, reflected the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment that coursed through France during these decades and laid the groundwork for the French Revolution. A visitor does not need to know all this to savor these wonderful works, but the historical dimension adds a special flavor that helps bind the artists together.

The show, which began at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and goes on to the Gemaldegalerie of the Berlin city museums after closing in Washington on Jan. 11, is titled "The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting." The curators have headlined the names of the three best-known French painters during these years, but the exhibition, in fact, consists of 108 paintings by 27 artists. It is trying to show the works of an era, not a trio.

These paintings are not meant to be subversive. They do not expose the evils of the Old Regime. But when Jean-Antoine Watteau painted young couples in outlandish costumes flirting in gardens, and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin painted an eavesdropping maid just back from the market, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze painted the warmth of a family hailing a marriage contract, and Jean-Honore Fragonard painted a half-naked young girl frolicking with her dog, they were breaking with tradition.

During the 70-year reign of Louis XIV, the "Sun King" who died in 1715, artists were expected to paint huge canvases replete with serious scenes from history, literature or the Bible. These tended to glorify the church and the monarchy. Even after Louis XIV died, the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture extolled these historical paintings and looked down on everything else.

Genre paintings -- scenes of everyday life -- were regarded by the academy as the lowest of the low. Yet as Philip Conisbee, the senior curator of European paintings at the National Gallery and the former curator of European painting and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, explains, "There was a good market for them." Genre paintings sold for some practical reasons in 18th century France.

After the reign of Louis XIV, the royal court moved from Versailles to Paris, forcing the nobility and rich bourgeoisie to build townhouses for themselves with walls that required smaller paintings than the usual historical extravaganzas. The royal treasury dwindled, allowing fewer commissions for the large works admired by royalty. On top of this, Conisbee says, "an elite, sophisticated, urbane society" developed in Paris that favored intimate paintings rather than massive murals of historical propaganda.

Two innovations helped to expand the popularity of genre painting. In 1737, the academy staged its first salon, showing the works of artists to the general public. Since there were no museums in those days, the salons represented the only chance for most French citizens to see a distinguished painting. Although the Academy still favored historical painting, many artists showed their lowly genre paintings as well, and these caught the fancy of the salon visitors. In another innovation, art criticism emerged: Intellectuals began writing about the paintings of the salons in newspapers and pamphlets and praising the genre artists.

But there was a deeper reason for genre painting's popularity as well. The writers of the Enlightenment -- led by Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- insisted that knowledge would liberate the minds of individuals and enable them to enjoy happiness on their own. Happiness did not depend on blindly following the strictures of the church and an absolute monarchy. This generated a new mood of concern for humanity and individuality -- a mood that fostered genre painting.

The exhibition opens with nine works by Watteau, the painter "who set the tone for much of the 18th century," according to Conisbee. Watteau came from a town in northern France bordering Flanders, where genre painting had been popular for many years, and he turned his back on historical painting early in his career. He kept so far from glorifying the monarchy that one of his early paintings, "The Portal of Valenciennes," shows dispirited and weary French soldiers resting after a defeat.

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