October 17, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part I

Bonjour from Paris where the sun is shining and there are a lot of really great exhibitions on view all over town.  So many in fact, that I was wondering how to cover such a range of periods and styles but I think I'll just begin with the earliest and work my way into the present.

Let's start off with a marvelous show presented in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay.  It is hard to believe that it is thirty years already since the Musée d'Orsay opened as the brilliantly re-purposed train station-cum-repository for the city's vast collection of Impressionist paintings.  On the other hand, it is such a fixture on the museum circuit that it seems like it's always been there.  In any case, the museum has used the occasion of this important milestone to offer a fresh perspective on another landmark era in French history, the Second Empire.

The short reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) was an era of strong economic growth, a stable imperial regime, and a thriving artistic community.  While sometimes maligned as a time of conspicuous consumption, excess and corruption, the Second Empire has left a legacy of extraordinary achievements in the fine and decorative arts.

Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (after)
"Napoleon III, Emperor of the French", c. 1861

While Napoleon III certainly broke a few rules when he seized the throne after being elected President of the Republic in 1851 and then dissolving the National Assembly to become the sole ruler, he subsequently re-enacted both universal suffrage and freedom of the press.  Though he effectively appointed himself Emperor, he was extremely popular among his subjects.  Part of the reason for this adoration was his propensity for over-the-top celebrations and public fanfare - devices that instilled national pride and a sense of participation in something great on the part of the French citizenry.

For example, the marriage of Napoleon III and Eugenie was an extravagant ceremony involving the lavish decoration of Notre Dame Cathedral, and the birth of the Prince Imperial two years later was again cause for a gala event complete with a ceremonial cradle.  Though the marking of each of these occasions may seems excessive, it did achieve a couple of important objectives for the dynasty.  First, it gave the public a chance to revel in the success of the Empire and take pride in its sovereigns, and second, it promoted and honored French artistic and cultural superiority.  Furthermore, much as the Fête Impériale was undeniably a fabricated excuse to dress up and have a party, it also served the very important function of securing France's place as the most elegant and sophisticated place on earth while coalescing support for both the royal family and the luxury purveyors who supplied them.

Henri Baron
"Official Celebration at the Tuileries Palace During
the Universal Exhibition of 1867"

This beautifully installed exhibition is an opportunity to see some fabulous examples of works by French artists and craftsmen of the Second Empire.  Ornate vases by Sèvres, tapestries by Beauvais, portrait paintings by Tissot and Degas, Gothic Revival carved furniture, Imperial jewels, a baptismal font made entirely of crystal - all of these items were created in the mania for the elegant and exotic that captivated the public.  Yes, the Second Empire was a period of rampant consumerism, but it also left a legacy of some magnificent works of art that continue to delight.

As luck would have it, I made my visit to the Musée d'Orsay on the same afternoon as a costume ball was being held in their elegant Salle des Fêtes, and the museum was crowded with ladies and gentleman in period attire.  It was a funny sight to see women in decorated hats and hoop skirts talking on iPhones but it certainly added to the atmosphere of this historic show.

Over in the 6th Arrondisement, at the Musée du Luxembourg, is another exhibition devoted to the art of a 19th century painter, Henri Fantin-Latour.  "À fleur de peau" is a retrospective of the still lifes, portraits and "imaginative works" of this complex artist.

"Autoportrait", 1860

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) lived and breathed art.  "Painting is my only pleasure, my only goal" and this statement, made at the tender age of 19, guided his life to the end.  In the age of collectives, Fantin-Latour was an anomaly, an independent artist working on the fringes but guided by his own very developed sense of purpose.

In his quest for realism, he developed a reputation as a fine painter of portraits, especially group scenes.  Though sometimes rather grim and not always the most flattering depictions, they were nevertheless true to life.

"Coin de table", 1872
Group portrait of some of the most famous writers of the day
"Autour du piano", 1885
Group portrait of some of the most famous musicians 
and composers of the day
Perhaps more successful were his still lifes which proved very popular and provided his main source of income.  Exquisitely rendered, the flowers on these canvases look as though they had just been picked from a garden...
"La table garni", 1866

"The Rosy Wreath of June", 1886

Despite this dedication to the realistic (he was an early collector of photography), Fantin-Latour also had an imaginative side.  This foray into fantasy was expressed in paintings that verged on the Surreal.  Obsessed with music, particularly the composers Berlioz and Wagner, Fantin-Latour showed an entirely different side of himself with his "imaginative paintings".  Painted during his mature years, these were the works that ultimately offer the truest view of the artist's real self.

"Ariane abandonné", 1899

"Au bord de la mer", 1903

The popularity of Fantin-Latour has waxed and waned over the years, but he remains an important figure in the 19th century art world and bridged the gap between classic and modern.  This exhibition is a testament to his enduring influence and legacy.

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