- Eighteenth-Century French Drawings in New York Collections, and: French and English Drawings of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries from the National Gallery of Canada, and: Drouais’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour from the National Gallery, London
Early spring in New York City offered rich viewing opportunities for those interested in eighteenth-century art, particularly drawings. An outstanding exhibition of French drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art provided a small survey of eighteenth-century French art, and joined works from New York City museums with much-lesser-known drawings from private collections. At the Frick Collection, one could study François-Hubert Drouais’s riveting portrait of Madame de Pompadour on loan from the National Gallery in London, as well as a judicious selection of French and English drawings from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Since many of the drawings at both museums were new to New York audiences, the opportunities for imaginative study afforded by the curators’ careful selections and juxtapositions opened new pathways for considering the complex visual language of eighteenth-century graphic art.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan was organized by Perrin Stein, Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints, and the independent scholar Mary Tavener Holmes; they also jointly authored the informative and fully-illustrated catalogue that accompanied the exhibition. The works selected by the two curators exemplified the many genres and styles practiced by eighteenth-century French artists. In addition to the familiar contrast between the Rococo and Neoclassicism, one could observe the variety of drawings produced toward different ends throughout the century—fête galante fantasies, domestic genre scenes, portraiture, still life, decorative designs, figural studies, and compositional arrangements for history and religious paintings. The three rooms were laid out roughly chronologically: in the first room appeared works by Antoine Watteau, his followers, and early practitioners of the Rococo style, as well as artists associated with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the first half of the century; the second room contained midcentury history, landscape and genre scenes, including many works by Jean-Honoré Fragonard; the third featured drawings by artists working late in the century, with a strong emphasis upon Neoclassicism and Revolutionary themes. [End Page 125]
Leading off the whole exhibition was, comically enough, Claude Gillot’s Stalled Procession, a new purchase by the Metropolitan featuring a group of strikingly believable satyrs attempting to dislodge a wood nymph’s triumphal chariot from the mud. Gillot’s feathery treatment of the vegetation in this drawing would have a century-long resonance in both French and English landscape; here it was combined with a jittery use of the point of the brush to define the gregarious satyrs. Watteau was represented by several drawings, reflecting the long-standing popularity of this artist among curators and private collectors. The Study of a Man’s Head and Hands from a private collection, a drawing new to this reviewer, neatly exemplified Watteau’s interest in the decorative interconnections of his studies on the page: one hand, executed in red chalk, seemed to grow like a branch from the fluffy contour of the man’s black chalk periwig, while another hand, subtly fusing red and black, parried the outward thrust diagonally on the other side. To see Watteau’s drawings juxtaposed with those by his immediate followers often brings out distinctions, rather than similarities, and here was no exception; the white highlights in Nicolas Lancret’s Seated Couple on the Ground, for example, seemed less to define the figures structurally than to have fallen upon them as gentle snow.
Intriguing juxtapositions elsewhere encouraged visitors to note the variety of approaches that characterized French art in the first half of the century. The nervous energy and sensuous watercolor washes of the Fortune Teller, a drawing recently...