10.13.17 — Gentlemen and Giants

Before you get too far into French drawing at the Morgan Library, you might stop to compare two striking examples on facing walls. If you think of the Baroque as high drama or ornate, they seem to set you alone with their subjects. If you think of the classical age as academic, the Royal Academy was still years away.

Pencil outlines by Jacques Bellange barely contain his brown ink washes and the paper’s creamy whites, as they alternate freely down the page. Nor can they quite contain the blinded giant leaning on his cane—or the goddess on his shoulder, leaning down to offer him a smile, a hand, and a guide. Claude Lorrain's Hilly Landscape with Bare Trees (Morgan Library, 1639–1641)They might extend to you as well. Just a turn of the head away, Daniel Dumonstier uses four colors of chalk for the portrait of a gentleman. They bring clarity to the arc of an eyelid, the glint of an eye, the pursed lips, the bridge of his nose, and the points of his mustache and goatee. They also bring a high flourish to every curl of his hair and fold of his ruff collar.

Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age” is an overflowing study in contrasts, through October 15. You can see the erudition of artists and audiences familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, poetry, and myth—and sharp eyes concerned for nature and appearances. You can see competing bases for art in Versailles, the royal palace at Fontainebleau, and the ducal court of Lorraine, at Nancy. You can see the growing importance of drawing as central to an artist’s working methods and as finished product—for patronage, for sale, for mounting in albums, or for production in series. Dumonstier had a reputation for his four-chalk technique and for entertaining his sitters while he worked. You can see why he was in demand.

Think of them not as conflicting impulses or as tensions within the art. Think of them rather as the nexus of beliefs and practices that define the high style of the 1600s. Throw in the devotion of French Catholics—and try not to worry that the Inquisition had Sébastien Bourdon, a Protestant, on the run. This was the Grand Siècle, or great century, for both royal power and the Baroque. It drew on Italy, from Caravaggio to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, even before the king recalled Simon Vouet to France in 1627. Overwhelmed with commissions and intrigues at the French court, Nicolas Poussin hightailed it back to Rome in 1642 as fast as he could.

The Frick went into greater depth fifteen years ago, with loans from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. (Pardon me if I leave a fuller and more helpful look to my review then.) The Morgan has turned to the same century with “Rembrandt’s World” in 2012—and to later French drawing with “Fragonard and the French Tradition” in 2006, “Rococo to Revolution” in 2008, and Théodore Rousseau and the Barbizon school in 2014. Here the curators, Jennifer Tonkovich and Marco Simone Bolzoni, trace the influence of the court, the birth of a print culture, and a budding market in collectors (like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than a century later). They end with the consolidation of artistic practice in the Academy and the royal collection under Charles Le Brun. Fewer than fifty drawings, almost all from the Morgan’s collection, make a compact introduction.

As the show’s title suggests, they give the most space to Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Lorrain. Nowhere else is the mix of classicism, piety, observation, and creativity more apparent. With Poussin’s Death of Hippolytes from 1645, real horses run wild past a crag, a mythic chariot overturns, and a tidy pyramid collapses with them. In his study soon after for The Holy Family on the Steps, black chalk adds stabs of insight, and shadows are a torrent of ink and wash. Anne and the infant Saint John have a greater activity than in the painting, and such props as a towel and plant life have not yet given way to its eerie perspective. Claude lends Apollo with a herd of goats both a greater naturalism and a higher polish, while the crossing diagonals of hills, clouds, houses, and trees take on both a greater depth and a supernatural energy.

Claude may have worked from the view out his studio window in Rome or on the spot, only to enhance clouds and reflected sunlight later on. An artist known only as Lagneau may have sketched a peasant’s raised hair and crooked mouth, much as August Sander sought social and psychological archetypes in the twentieth century—or he may have posed a workshop assistant and added his imagination. Charles Mellin definitely played with actual and trompe l’oeil architecture in designing a fresco over an arch. Building on a The Visitation by Pontormo from 1528, Laurent de la Hyre allows Mary and Elizabeth a very human warmth, but also a Renaissance bulk and a perfect balance. Earlier, Vouet treats Louis XIII informally, but also apart from details of clothing that might make him a mere mortal. Gentlemen, too, might be giants.

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9.8.17 — To Make You See

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Does that make Joseph Conrad a painter, and what of a near contemporary from across the Atlantic? With “Henry James and American Painting,” through September 10, the Morgan Library would like you, too, to see.

Conrad wrote those words in 1897, on the verge of his greatest works. From the preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” they attest all by themselves to the urgency of the written word. John Singer Sargent's Henry James (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1913)Could they apply to a somewhat older novelist, then also in England and soon to enter his major period as well? It may sound unlikely, if Henry James makes you think of a disdain for appearances. He hated Impressionism and took only the faintest interest in what came after. He seems more determined to make you confused, to make you mired in his syntax, and before all to make you think.

Yet James did write The Portrait of a Lady, and he sure knew portraits. He sat for John Singer Sargent, and he knew Sargent’s New England, London, and Italy by heart. He knew another American expatriate in James McNeill Whistler as well. He took art lessons when young, compared writing well to artistry, created an aspiring sculptor in Roderick Hudson, and lived and worked among artists. He paid a studio visit to William Morris Hunt, advised a sculptor on how to find a market, and shared impressions of Europe with John La Farge. He wrote “The Aspern Papers” while paying frequent visits to Frank Duveneck—a portrait painter whom James called “the unsuspected genius.”

Duveneck married a student, Elizabeth Boott, and James encouraged her, too. According to the curators, Colm Tóibín and Declan Kiely, she also served as a model for the vulnerable heroine of Washington Square, the illegitimate daughter of a treacherous husband in The Portrait of a Lady, and the increasingly suspicious heroine of The Golden Bowl. She may or may not have recognized herself—or felt halfway flattered. The exhibition has portraits by all these artists, with several of James. It has scenes of Florence and Venice by Sargent, London fog by Whistler, photographs, and documents. To underscore its theme, Tóibín is a novelist and critic.

It is less than convincing all the same, as either the key to the novels or as art. James moved among wealth, and much of the show reflects the conservatism of American art entering the twentieth century. Many of the artists on view are half-remembered and conventional—including the sole American Impressionist, Lilla Cabot Perry. Boott’s gilded funeral effigy, by her husband, is downright embarrassing. The sole hint of Modernism comes in a photo, with James inspecting a painting by Arthur B. Davies. Try to convince yourself that he was learning rather than judging.

Nor should it should come as a revelation that writers mingle with artists. Michelangelo as a poet, anyone, or the expansive circles of Gertrude Stein, Florine Stettheimer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol? It deserves more attention, too, that those relationships change with the times—from shared patronage by the powerful to the shared alienation of the avant-garde. James lies somewhere in between, and it shows in the anxiety and betrayals of his novels. But then Conrad had his greatest success in the murk of characters, morals, and language as well. Think of that verbose and badly punctuated run-on sentence.

Still, the parallels between literature and art extend beyond the slow emergence of the American modern. Whistler could almost have been speaking of James when he titled a portrait Arrangement in Black and Brown. The sudden glimpses of light amid theater and darkness in Sargent suggest the later fiction as well. His portrait of James in 1913, three years before the writer’s death, is the most penetrating in the show. Then again, a sentence or two further into his preface, Conrad could have been describing them all. He may seek appearances, but for “encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

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