Long overdue credit to a great French tradition
Probably the biggest misconception we of this century have had about French 19th-century painting was that if it wasn't done by David, Ingres, Delacroix, etc., of the first third of the century -- or by one of the impressionists or post-impressionists of the last third -- it had to be academic, artificial, and dead.
It was, in other words, the bad art against which the good guys like Cezanne and Monet had to do deadly battle to survive.
The fact of the matter is that some of the best, most solid, and most honorable painting done in that century was done by the French realists.
Not that all of them were great masters, nor that the movement spawned great new ideas or forms. This art did, however, manage to switch attention away from the huge allegorical and aristocratic paintings still very much in evidence in the annual salons and put the spotlight on the portrayal of everyday scenes and events of French life -- thus paving the way for both the directness of impressionism and the humble humanity of the art of van Gogh.
Now, art exhibitions exists for many reasons. There are those which introduce new talent, and those which keep us up to date on what is happening. Others are designed to flatter a rich patron who paints a little, or to make money for charity, or to prove to the world that a particular artist was unjustly ignored by recent or ancient art history.
But of all the reasons for spending the time and money to put together an exhibition, none is more worthy (or more difficult) than assembling a show to reexamine a hitherto little-known or misunderstood period like French realism.
Such an exhibition is "The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900" currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum here, but originally assembled and displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It consists of 250 paintings and drawings by 70 artists -- some drawn from museums but others found languishing in attics and basements -- and offers a wide panorama of 19 th-century French society, from paintings of elegant salons and comfortable homes to portrayals of peasant life and difficult factory and workshop conditions.
But all of it represents the French 19th-century realist tradition our century has chosen to ignore and, to a certain extent, deride.
In curating the original show, Dr. Gabriel P. Weisberg, curator of art history and education at the Cleveland Museum, followed the traditional categories of realism used by 19th-century art critics and salon juries: genre, still life, portrait, and landscape.
Genre included scenes of everyday life and the portrayal of regional customs and traditions with particular emphasis on the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Realist still-life paintings depicted objects associated with the working-class or peasant kitchen, such as earthenware dishes, pots and pans, and humble vegetables and fruit.
Realist portraits tended to be of family members and close friends and associates, and were usually presented as gifts. And the landscapes painted by the realists portrayed specific and familiar places, and were done simply and directly and without idealizing or romanticizing of any sort.
The task of assembling this exhibition was a huge one and involved extensive field research in France, including trips to provincial museums, private dealers , and, wherever possible, descendants of the artists. Official government archives and salon, exhibition, cemetery, and newspaper records were studied for clues about the artists.
When both background material and paintings had been assembled, there still remained the job of choosing those works that would be of the highest caliber, would best represent the artists, and would make the strongest contribution to the exhibition as a whole.
The result is an exhibition the likes of which I have never seen before. It is a veritable potpourri of realist art, and will, i'm certain, do a great deal to help clarify many of our misconceptions about certain aspects of French 19 th-century art.
While the excellent exhibition catalog abounds in the names of totally unfamiliar artists, it also includes names like Degas, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Millet, Daumier, and Courbet.
But theirs are not necessarily the best works on view. Artists like Ribot, Breton, Troyon, Henner, Bonvin, Pils, Legros, Meissonier, Vollon, Hervier, Raffaelli, Bastein-Lepage, Dupre, and Serusier are all represented by at least one exceptional work, and in some instances, several.
Bonvin's tiny watercolor "Street in Front of Leon Bonvin's House" (not quite seven inches square) is a crisp and perfect a study of a city and its atmosphere as can be found anywhere. And Beraud's "The Banks of the Seine," Dupre's "Haying Scene," and Vollon's "Still Life With Ceramic Jug, Basket of Fish, and Cooking Utensils" will still look good centuries from now.
Although there are many remarkable pictures in it, the show as a whole is not easy to assimilate, despite the care with which it was designed and laid out. The problem lies in the size of the exhibition and in the fact that almost every work in it is extremely detailed -- and even, in some instances, highly complex.
We, with our modern prejudices against art that looks "busy" or "cluttered," are simply not used to viewing a show like this, in which most of the pictures require considerable study and demands that we grasp the nuances of a piece of narrative painting, or identify with the portrayal of a struggling artist in his studio. To many of us such study and identification are beside the point of art and have to do with values and issues from which we feel art has finally freed itself.
Perhaps that is so. But then, perhaps it is also time we started to look beyond our own notions and prejudices about art, and really looked at the art we have for so long considered bad because our heroes Cezanne and Monet (among others) fought so hard against it. These artists and their work are no longer the enemy against which we must defend ourselves. Some sort of rehabilitation is necessary, and that realization must surely have been one of the central reasons that so much time and effort were taken to assemble this show. The effort was obviously not made in vain --tion enjoyed during its run in Cleveland.
This is an extremely important show, not because it is stuffed to the rafters with great art (it isn't), or because it proves that one or another of the relatively forgotten painters of the movement were actually universal geniuses (it doesn't), but because it should open our eyes to a great deal of good art we had previously ignored or even reviled. I recommend it highly, but I also suggest it be visited more than once. There is simply too much to see during one trip.
This excellent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum will run through May 10 and will then travel to the St. Louis Art Museum (July 23-Sept. 20) and the Glasgow Art Gallery and Musuem in Scotland (Nov. 5-Jan. 4, 1982).