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Painters in Paris: 1895-1950

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 8 - Dec. 8, 2000

"Lucien Gilbert" by Derain

"Lucien Gilbert," a 1906 portrait, by André Derain, oil on canvas, 32 by 23 ¾ inches, gift of Joyce Blaffer von Bothmer in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Blaffer, 1975

By Carter B. Horsley

This exhibition of 114 "School of Paris" works of art, 105 of which are paintings, collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1947 and 1999 - a rather awkward chronological "set" - is pleasant, but not awesome, an indication that the museum’s collection in this area needs strengthening.

This is not the definitive School of Paris show by any stretch. To its great credit, however, the first "wall text" in the exhibition notes that "works by several significant artists are lacking, and such omissions should be remedied."

(The catalogue notes that there are many School of Paris works in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, which is on exhibit at the museum six months a year and not included in this exhibition.)

Indeed, some of the paintings in this show, especially some by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), are exceeding weak and not worthy of museum exhibition. One could argue, even, that only a quarter of the works shown are important. Of course, one of the difficulties in museumology is how to nurture bequests from collectors and weed them out of lesser quality works, a process overflowing with controversy and difficulties. Invariably, museums will accept gifts of significant collections that contain some masterpieces as well as a few non-masterpieces.

Despite such nitpicking, however, there are some great paintings in this exhibition.

This exhibition highlights notable bequests from Adelaide Milton de Groot (1967), Scofield Thayer (1982), Florene M. Schoenborn (1995) and Jacques and Natasha Gelman (1998), and "distinguished gifts" from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection (1949) and the Mr. And Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection (1997-8).

The museum’s press release for the exhibition quotes Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s director, as stating that "This collection has grown dramatically during the last two decades alone, as we have had the good fortune to gratefully accept a number of extraordinarily generous gifts and bequests." The release also quoted William S. Lieberman, the museum’s, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Chairman of the Modern Art Department and curator of the exhibition, as stating that "this is the first such survey of masterworks from our collection, and it will be revelatory for our visitors. Not only will it recall a period and place of great vitality but it will also reveal unexpected relationships between the artists who so profounded shaped the art of this century."

In recent decades, of course, the museum has made something of a mockery of its "Name Game" with various recent donors being giving greater prominence than many of the museum’s greatest early benefactors, especially J. P. Morgan, Benjamin Altman, Jules Bache and the Havemeyer family, whose munificent gifts make the later ones, with rare exceptions such as Robert Lehman and the Annenbergs, seem very puny indeed.

The "School of Paris," of course, does not refer to a specific school or group of French painters. Originally, the French used the phrase to refer to foreigner artists who lived and worked in France before and during World War I, but this exhibition extends the definition to include artists, both foreign and native, who lived and worked in Paris in the first half of the 20th Century. "Although most of the painters of the polyglot School of Paris knew each other, they never exhibited together as a group. Some were artistic partners; some were mentors; others followed. Paris was their home, but they shared no single style. Their nationalities were also diverse: [Jules] Pascin [1885-1930] was Bulgarian; [Frantisek] Kupka [1871-1957] was Czech; [Giorgio] de Chirico [1888-1978], [Amedeo] Modigliani [1884-1920], and [Gino] Severini [1883-1966] were Italian; [Jacques] Lipchitz [1891-1973] and [Chaim] Soutine [1893-1943] were Lithuanian; [Diego] Rivera [1886-1957] was Mexican; [Marc] Chagall 1887-1985], [Natalia] Gontcharova [1881-1962], and [Pavel] Tchelitchew [1898-1957] were Russian; [Juan] Gris [1887-1927], [Joan] Miró [1893-1983] and [Pablo] Picasso [1881-1973] were Spanish; and [Alberto] Giacometti [1901-1966] and [Félix] Valloton [1865-1925] were Swiss," the wall text noted.

Needless to say, George Braques, (1882-1963), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and André Derain (1880-1954), who figure prominently in this show, were French as was Maurice Denis (1870-1943), the chief theorist for the Nabis, who were originally influenced by the use of color and flat rhythmic patterns by Paul Gauguin and then by the mystical colorations of Odile Redon.

One of the exhibition’s more interesting surprises is Denis’s "Springtime," a large study. Circa 1897, in blues, white, green, pinks and grays, Gift of David Allen Devrishian, 1999, that is reminiscent in its composition, but not coloration, of the work of Puvis de Chavannes, one of the artists missing in this survey whose flat, neoclassical works were an important though not terribly inspiring prelude to abstraction. Denis’s Springtime is a quite lyrical and beautiful work.

Bonnard and Vuillard were perhaps the most famous of the Nabis, but Bonnard suffers here greatly in comparison with Vuillard who is represented with three marvelous works, the largest of which is a panoramic view of a Paris neighborhood that is a "promised" gift to the museum. In all the excitement over Fauvism, Cubism, and all subsequent "isms," Vuillard has been too often overlooked for his fantastic painterly qualities that surely make him one of the greatest masters of all time. While this exhibition is relatively minor, it is a must exhibition merely because of the first room that shows this large Vuillard next to a smaller but still large Vuillard, both across the room from an exquisite small Vuillard. (Sadly, the same room shows three small and very unexciting Bonnards and one good large Bonnard.)

Vuillard is a painter of texture and subtle coloration. The large Parisian scene, which seems to have a super-wide-angle-lens distortion, is dryly painted and has a quite muted palette of light browns, yellows, white and greens, a palette he often employed in his larger works. The painting ("Place Vintimille, Paris," 1916, distemper on canvas, 64 by 90 inches, promised gift of anonyomous donor) is very fine and only misses the rustling of drapery of the opened French windows and the smell of coffee and croissants for total "transportation."

"Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson" by Edouard Vuillard

"Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson," by Edouard Vuillard, distemper on canvas, 1923-1937, 59 ½ by 43 5/8 inches, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1952

The other large Vuillard ("Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson," 1923-1937, distemper on canvas, 59 ½ by 43 5/8 inches, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1952) is a startling contrast as its deeply saturated and rich colors and vibrant composition tend to conjure Monet rather than Vuillard and yet the stamp of Vuillard’s brushwork is very clear. This is a dazzling work.

"Luncheon," by Edouard Vuillard, 1901, oil on cardboard, 8 ¾ by 17 inches, bequest of Mary Cushing Fosburgh, 1978

The small Vuillard ("Luncheon," 1901, oil on cardboard, 8 ¾ by 17 inches, bequest of Mary Cushing Fosburgh, 1978) is typical of what one normally expects: bravura brushwork, vivid colors and superb composition.

The same gallery has a 1920 Water Lily painting by Monet that is a good example of this popular genre.

The next gallery has several Picasso’s including his portrait of Gertrude Stein, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 by 32 inches, that was finished in early autumn of 1906 and given by the famous salon hostess to the museum in 1946. Stein, the wall text states, also owned Picasso’s small self-portrait, 1906, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 10 ½ by 7 ¾ inches, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998, in the same gallery. When Picasso finished his portrait of Stein in 1906, he was 24 and she was 32. "Several years later Miss Stein remembered, ‘Picasso sat very tight and very close to his canvases and on a very small palette, which was of a uniform brown gray color, mixed with some more brown gray and the painting began. This was the first of some eighty or ninety sittings. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. ‘I can’t see you anymore when I look,’ he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that.’ After a working vacation in Spain, Picasso returned to Paris. Without seeing Stein again he completed her portrait. The head differs in style from the body and hands; and the masklike face reflects Picasso’s recent study of African sculpture. When someone commented that Stein did not resemble her portrait, Picasso replied, ‘She will.’"

The small self-portrait head of Picasso is simple but very strong. The virtually identical head sits atop a full-length body in a larger painting done in the same year by the same artist in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Harlequin" (1927) by Picasso

"Harlequin," 1927, oil on canvas, 32 by 25 5/8 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997

There are more than 20 Picassos in this exhibition. Other good ones are the "Harlequin," a 1901 oil on canvas, 32 5/8 by 24 1/8 inches, that is very luscious and decorative and was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb in 1960; "The Actor," a 1904-5 oil on canvas, 76 3/8 by 44 1/8 inches, a pleasantly pink and enigmatic but powerful gift of Thelma Chrysler Foy in 1952; four superb Picassos from the Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997: the excellent "Nude in an Armchair," 1909-10, oil on canvas, 32 by 25 ¾ inches, the "Still Life with a Pipe Rack, 1911, oil on canvas, 20 by 50 3/8 inches, the unusual "Harlequin," 1927, oil on canvas, 32 by 25 5/8 inches, and the colorful "The Dreamer," a 1932 oil on canvas, 39 7/8 by 36 ¾ inches; and "Girl Reading at a Table," a pleasant 1934 oil and enamel on canvas, 63 7/8 by 51 3/8 inches, bequenest of Florene M. Schoenborn in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1995.

Picasso is almost is shown up in this exhibition by both André Derain and Georges Braque.

Derain, one of the great Fauves, is represented by three magnificent paintings: "Lucien Gilbert," a 1906 portrait, shown at the top of this article, oil on canvas, 32 by 23 ¾ inches, that was a gift of Joyce Blaffer von Bothmer in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Blaffer, 1975; "Fishing Boats, Collioure," a 1905 oil on canvas, 31 7/8 by 29 ½ inches, gift of Raymonde Paul, in memory of her brother, C. Michael Paul, and purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1982; and "The Houses of Parliament Seen at Night," a 1906 oil on canvas, 40 ½ inches by 47 ¾ inches, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. The first is intense and quite able to be hung beside any Van Gogh! The second is a recognizable pier scene with pyrotechnical dynamics. The third is a very bold work in its brushwork and palette.

"Woman Seated at an Easel" by Georges Braque

"Woman Seated at an Easel," by Georges Braque, 1936 oil with sand on canvas, 51 ½ by 63 7/8 inches, bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995

Braques is represented by three great works that were part of the bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995: "Woman Seated at an Easel," a 1936 oil with sand on canvas, 51 ½ by 63 7/8 inches, "The Studio," a 1949 oil on canvas, 51 ½ by 29 1/8 inches, and "Guitar and Still Life on a Mantelpiece," a 1921 oil with sand on canvas, 51 3/8 by 29 3/8 inches.

"Vertical and Diagonal Planes" by Kupka

"Vertical and Diagonal Planes," by Kupka, circa 1913-4, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 by 19 ¾ inches, gift of the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., 1971

A particularly feliticious juxtaposition in the galleries is the pairing of "Vertical and Diagonal Planes," by Kupka, circa 1913-4, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 by 19 ¾ inches, shown above, a great geometric study rich in blues and oranges and blacks, gift of the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., 1971, with "Star Dancer with Her Dance School," a 1913 watercolor on paper, shown below, 22 by 30 inches, by Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.

"Star Dancer with her Dance School by Picabia

"Star Dancer with Her Dance School," a 1913 watercolor on paper, shown below, 22 by 30 inches, by Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949

Among the other highlights of the show are the following: "The Repast of a Lion," by Henri Rousseau (1944-1910), a circa 1907 oil on canvas, 44 ¾ by 63 inches, Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951, a major work by this primitive artist; "Dancer-Airplane Propeller-Sea, a 1915 oil on canvas, 29 5/8 by 30 ¾ inches, by Gino Severini, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, shown below; "Table by a Window," a 1917 oil on canvas by Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), 32 by 25 5/8 inches, purchase, the M. L. Annenberg Foundation, Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., and Joseph H. Hazen Gifts, 1959; "The Terrace at Vernonnet," a 1939 oil on canvas by Pierre Bonnard, 58 ¼ by 76 ¾ inches, gift of Mrs. Frank Jay Gould, 1968; "Artillery," a 1911 oil on canvas by Roger de la Fresnaye, 51 ¼ by 62 ¾ inches, Gift of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1991, a simple but very strong work by this modern master; "The Dining Table," a 1912 oil on canvas by Jacques Villon (1875-1963), 25 ¾ by 32 inches, Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Justin K. Thannhauser, by exchange, 1983, a jewel-like fantasy still life of great depth and vigor; and "Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance II’," a 1912 oil on canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982, a work that was exhibited in the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913; "Dutch Interior," a 1928 oil on canvas by Joan Miro, 51 1/8 by 38 1/8 inches, Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn 1995, a good example of this artist’s fluid imagination; and "Three Judges," an oil on canvas, circa 1938, by Georges Roualt (1871-1958), 27 ¼ by 21 ½ inches, a strong, jewel-like work by this neglected modern master, The Frederick and Helen Serger Collection, Bequest of Helen Serger, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1989.

"Dancer-Airplane Propeller-Sea" by Severini

"Dancer-Airplane Propeller-Sea, a 1915 oil on canvas, 29 5/8 by 30 ¾ inches, by Gino Severini, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949

The exhibition also includes some nice Modiglianis and Legers, an interesting Cubist still life by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), a couple of fine Gris, a good Miro and an interesting Jean Hélion (1904-1987).

The exhibition is accompanied by a 128-page softcover catalogue, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., that has 104 good color illustrations and is priced at only $19.95. The exhibition is sponsored by Aetna and the museum has scheduled an interesting variety of lectures, gallery talks and films in conjunction with it.

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