At BMA, an exquisite French feast

In a rare collaboration, Baltimore's two museums combine the best of their paintings to cook up a tasty 'Triumph.'

March 12, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Like everybody else, the art world loves a winner. And what could be a more sure-fire winner for a museum than an exhibition of famous, well-loved French paintings?

So it's no wonder that the Baltimore Museum of Art is betting that "The Triumph of French Painting," which opens today, will be the sleeper blockbuster of the season.

The BMA's formula for success is simple:

1. Put together your finest 19th- and early 20th-century French paintings.

2. Invite the Walters Art Gallery to lend the creme de la creme of its French collection and -- voila! -- you've got a joint exhibition showcasing the best Baltimore has to offer a la francaise.

This is a recipe that's hard to fault. There's scarcely a more pleasant way of spending an afternoon at the museum than wandering through galleries filled with beautiful paintings almost everyone has come to love over the years and which, moreover, when taken together, constitute a nearly seamless narrative of the major artistic movements of the 19th century.

Under such circumstances, a severely critical perspective seems unnecessary. This is a show to relax with and enjoy the visual pleasures of, a sumptuous art repast that stimulates contemplation and opinionated pronouncements. Take, for example, Paul Gauguin's voluptuous 1892 portrait of his Tahitian mistress from the BMA's Cone Collection, "Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango)."

She is as exotic in her rich purple dress as the tropical fruit she holds in her hand, and soooo easy to fall in love with that one wonders how the artist ever had the heart to treat her so shabbily in real life.

Or stop in front of Jean-Baptise-Camille Corot's shaded country lane in "Sevres-Brimborion, View Towards Paris" (1858), also from the BMA.

Corot's serene road runs straight up the canvas toward the horizon and Paris, and one can imagine merrily sauntering down it on a summer day with a picnic basket full of fruit, bread, wine and cheese.

Though many of these works have been on display for years in their respective museum's galleries, there are also quite a few that have been in storage, on loan or otherwise out of view of local museum-goers.

Charming Graces

I don't recall recently seeing Jules-Adolph-Aime-Louise Breton's (how many given names does one painter need, anyway?) idealized scene of peasant women in "Returning From the Fields" (1871). Breton was a romantic disguised as a realist, but this picture of a trio of barefoot young women wending their way home with arms intertwined (an allusion to the Three Graces of classical legend) is charming.

Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre was one of those figures who is remembered as much for his influence on later artists as for his own work -- Renoir, Whistler, Monet, Sisley and Bazille all worked in his studio. Gleyre himself seems to have been a rather pedestrian neo-classicist with delusions of grandeur.

His "Lost Illusion" (1865-1867) depicts a vision the artist supposedly had on the banks of Egypt's Nile River. In it an aging poet lost in reverie watches as a boat filled with music-making maidens and a Cupid carries away his youthful dreams and illusions.

I have never been a great admirer of J.A.D. Ingres, whose "Oedipus and Sphinx" (1864), from the Walters Art Gallery, appears near the beginning of the show.

Ingres' scene of the nude hero standing amid rock outcroppings opposite a winged female figure straight out of "Tales From the Crypt" has always struck me as one of the world's silliest paintings.

Still, I enjoyed seeing it, if only for the sly pleasure the journalist in me gets from watching a paragon of the academy make an absolute, utter fool of himself.

Jean-Francois Millet's "The Potato Harvest" (1855) would be mawkishly sentimental were it not for the artist's passionate social conscience coupled with a formal restraint that borders on austerity. Millet's peasants, whom he painted on the monumental scale of figures in classical history painting, are affecting precisely because they do not proselytize but rather seem to accept their hard lot with noble dignity and grace.

Contemporary parallels

How different Jean-Leon Gerome's view of "A Roman Slave Market" (1884), which shows a young woman forced to display her nude body to a leering mob of privileged "aristocrats."

This is Victorian titillation at its most hypocritical, tricked out in the trappings of classical antiquity, and it rings pretty hollow as history.

Still, it reminds us that the naked human body is ever a focus of contention over issues of gender, power and status. With abortion, same-sex marriage and gays in the military all hot topics in this year's presidential campaign, we're struggling with the same problems today, with hardly a diminution in hypocrisy.

The show is organized in chronological order that allows viewers to easily make the connections between the various "isms" -- neo-classicism and romanticism, realism and impressionism -- the rise and fall of which marked the century's long march toward modern art.

But it isn't necessary to follow the prescribed route in order to appreciate the historical story line. One could as easily start at the end of the exhibit and work one's way back or even start near the middle and proceed in either direction.

It's worth noting that this collaboration between the BMA and the Walters marks a new era of improved relations between the two museums, a change attributable to the high regard in which BMA director Doreen Bolger and Walters director Gary Vikan hold each other.

If the present show turns out to be as successful as Bolger and Vikan hope, we're likely to see even more ambitious collaborations between the two institutions in the future.

A triumph

What: "The Triumph of French Painting"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets.

When: Through July 16

Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $6 adults; $4 students and seniors; 18 and under free

Call: 410-396-1700

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