Intimate Scenes. French Genre Painting between the Revolution and the Restoration

Toulouse, Musée des Augustins, from 22 October 2011 to 22 January 2012.

1. Jean Honoré Fragonard et Marguerite Gérard
The Interesting Student
Oil on canvas - 65 x 55 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : Luis Gonzalez

The Musée des Augustins has chosen to approach the chaotic period between the French Revolution and the Restoration by way of genre painting. All of the canvases, some of which are unpublished, come exclusively from French collections, either public or private ; the selection, besides underscoring the vitality of private collectors, allows us to follow a history of taste by revealing the wealth, but also the wants in the ensembles brought together here.
The catalogue with essays recalling the political, cultural and social context of the period, offers entries, but, alas, no index ; another drawback comes from the lack of legends for the paintings which accompany the essays, forcing the reader to search for them in the text.

The visit opens with the French fascination for the refined or precise manner of the Dutch Golden Age which inspired painters such as Henri-Nicolas Van Gorp, Marguerite Gérard and Louis-Léopold Boilly. Marguerite Gérard’s works accompany us throughout the entire exhibition [1] and the highlight of the show is The Interesting Student (ill. 1), a veritable discovery as the canvas had not been displayed since 1803, although it was well known through engravings. This was a collaboration between the artist and Fragonard, her brother-in-law : according to Carole Blumenfeld, he did the animals, the young woman’s face and hands, whereas Marguerite deployed her artistic skills in the treatment of the fabrics. The "student" is looking at a print of The Fountain of Love after Fragonard, while the ball at her feet - a motif found in several of her paintings - reflects the image of the painter in front of her easel, next to her master. Another painting also produced by the two artists, The Dance Lesson, shows the influence of Quiringh van Brekelenkam, Hendrick Sorgh as well as Ter Borch in the figure of the young girl. We should point out that most of the works resulting from their collaboration are in private collections. The Museum holds one painting by Marguerite, The Visit, purchased in 2005 "against the going trend of acquisition policies in French museums", adds Axel Hémery.

2. Henri-Nicolas Van Gorp (1756-1819)
Nina Singing a Romance
Oil on canvas - 41 x 33 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Photo : Musée des Augustins/D.Martin

3. Henri-Nicolas Van Gorp (1756-1819)
Ah ! Le voilà !
Oil on canvas - 43.1 x 32 cm
Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims /C.Devleeschauwer

This exhibition is also an opportunity for proposing new attributions : thus Carole Blumenfeld rejects the attribution of Nina Singing a Romance to Marguerite Gérard, also at the Musée des Augustins, and pronounces the painting by Van Gorp (ill. 2). This artist, who also knew Ter Borch and Netscher, is perhaps offering here an interpretation of the opera Nina or Crazy for Love.
Another painting newly reattributed to Henri-Nicolas Van Gorp is Ah, le voilà !, formerly thought to be by Boilly (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims) (ill. 3). A recurrent motif in all late-18th century genre painting, the little dog serves to illustrate the young mistress’ emotional flutterings and is a pretext for flirtatious seduction games. Devoid of any simpering or affectation, The Woman with Opera Glasses (ill. 4), on the other hand, and whose attribution to Van Gorp has been contested by some, shows no embarrassment about openly displaying her curiosity. She is not there to be seen, on the contrary she is the one staring at a scene hidden to our eyes, and we are deprived of the pleasure of languishing looks, fainting spells or pretended musings aimed perhaps at seducing us.

4. Henri-Nicolas Van Gorp (1756-1819)
The Woman with Opera Glasses
Oil on canvas - 40 x 32 cm
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musées de la Ville de Rouen
C.Lancien, C.Loisel

5. Jean-Simon Fournier (actif à la fin du XVIIIe siècle)
Two Friends
Oil on canvas - 51 x 43 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Musée des Augustins/D.Martin

Two Friends from the Musée des Augustins (ill. 5), previously attributed to Boilly, has also been lowered in ranking by Carole Blumenfeld who suggests the name of Jean-Simon Fournier, a little-known artist, cleverly implying that it is better to own a magnificent Fournier than a mediocre Boilly ; this is in fact the only genre scene by the artist in a French museum.
Except for the works no longer attributed to him, Boilly is not very visible in this exhibition, as the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille is currently offering a retrospective (see article). There is, however, an unpublished work by this artist : a portrait of Julie, his second wife, comparable to The Artist’s Wife in his Studio (Williamstown, The Clark Institute), posing in front of one of the optical boxes Boilly collected (ill. 6).

6. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Julie, The Artist’s Wife
Oil on panel - 41 x 32 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : L. Gonzalez

7. Martin Drolling (1752- 1817)
The Kitchen, 1815
Oil on canvas - 65 x 80.8 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo RMNGP/J-G Berizzi

Another room, in a rather artificial separation with the first section, presents Flemish taste in works by Debucourt, Drolling and Bilcoq. Debucourt exhibited Louis XVI’s Act of Charity and Humanity at the Salon in 1785, while Drolling, whose works appear more often in public collections than those of Marc-Antoine Bilcoq, painted The Kitchen (ill. 7), a very beautiful canvas which recalls Peter de Hooch’s interiors and had, as matching pair, The Dining Room of a bourgeois house. The treatment of the fabrics and the chiaroscuro effects reveal the virtuosity of this artist who often illustrated scenes of poor peasant families, influenced notably by Téniers, the Younger.

8. Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)
A Woman of Charity, 1775
Oil on canvas - 112 x 146 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Lyon MBA/A. Basset

This poverty was at times simply a pretext for praising benevolence - adapted from the concept of Christian charity, considered passé since the Enlightenment - in genre paintings which reflect a desire for virtue and edifying subjects in general. Greuze presented A Woman of Charity in his studio, at the same time as the Salon of 1775 (ill. 8). Among his students, Pierre-Alexandre Wille exhibited a large composition in the same vein as his master : Alms or The Miserable Family. Jean-Frédéric Schall also developed a style of painting after Greuze ; this painter specialized in representing dancers before the French Revolution, but then turned to this theme in canvases such as False Appearances where he described the consequences of a misjudgement when the father kills the dog unfairly, understanding all too late that the blood on his snout is not that of his child but the snake threatening him (ill. 9). The theatrical staging of the composition dramatizes the climatic moment.

9. Jean-Frédéric Schall (1752-1825)
Maternal Fright or False Appearances
Oil on canvas - 50.5 x 61 cm
Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musées de Strasbourg/M. Berto

The painters who in 1770-1780 represented peaceful family scenes, were subsequently drawn by incidents depicting human dramas ; this evolution corresponded to the political events of the time, evoked in a painting by Boilly from a private collection and never before shown in France : Queueing for Milk, a grisaille, presents a new iconography of the Revolution as a symbol for the mother of the people to whom she is distributing milk (ill. 10). But drama does not always stand for tragedy and herein lies the charm of genre painting, with its variety of emotions, sometimes positive but never grand, and though it may touch upon moral themes, it never encourages virtus.

10. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Queueing for Milk
Oil on canvas - 41 x 52.2 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : D.R.

11. Pierre Henri Révoil (1776-1842)
Henri IV and his Children, 1813
Oil on canvas - 51 x 58 cm
Pau, Musée national du Château
Photo : RMNGP/R.-G. Ojéda

The exhibition goes on to explore the obsession with English culture or "anglomanie" and the French adaptation of the Conversation Piece. In another vein, Jacques Sablet produced portraits in the form of genre scenes which were very popular among the Roman nobility and foreign visitors to the Italian capital. The Empire was then to witness the current of a troubadour tradition : historical figures again attracted the interest of many artists as seen in the figures of Du Guesclin, François I, Bayard and particularly the debonair Henri IV which Pierre-Henri Révoil painted playing on all fours with his children in a famous work acquired by the Duke and Duchess de Berry at the Salon of 1817 (ill. 11). The concept of picturesque architectural interiors, pointed arches, mullioned or stained-glass windows, provided a setting for acting out family dramas or intimate historical events dominated by anecdotal happenings (ill. 12).

12. Jean-Baptiste Mallet (1759-1835)
The Gothic Bathroom, 1810
Oil on canvas - 40.5 x 32.5 cm
Dieppe, château-musée
Photo : Bertrand Legros

13. Louise-Adéone Drolling (1797-1831)
Portrait of a Child in an Interior
Oil on canvas - 32.5 x 41 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : Jean Bernard

The children of these artists progressively took over the tradition : Fragonard’s son represented Raphael Adjusting the Model’s Pose, playing on the contrast between the artist’s élan and the static posture of the model who no longer incarnates the Virgin Mary but an object of desire. Louise Adéone Drolling, the daughter of Martin and the sister of Michel-Martin, acquired a certain celebrity for her Interior with a Young Woman Drawing Flowers, also purchased by the Duchess de Berry (Saint Louis Art Museum). Previously unpublished, her Portrait of a Child in an Interior is full of poetry and silent grace, emphasized by the golden softness of the light and the charming silhouette of the child (ill. 13).

14. Marie-Caroline de Bourbon,
duchesse de Berry (1798-1870)
Interior of the Vendramin Palace
Oil on canvas - 60x 47 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : J.J. L’Héritier

Although the Duchess was known for her active patronage of the arts, her talents as an artist are an unexpected discovery ; this is one of the surprises in the exhibition which assembles three paintings produced by the Duchess during her exile in Italy, illustrating Friars at the Chartreuse of San Giacomo in Capri and an Evening Mass in a Convent (1842) as well as an Interior of the Vendramin Palace painted after 1844 (ill. 14). The last room reminds visitors that under the Restoration religious iconography underwent a revival and introduced itself into genre painting which however, continued to pursue an objective of pleasure rather than devotion.

Why did French genre painting fall from grace in the 21st century despite the delicate feminine faces and the taste for anecdotal scenes which characterize it ? Axel Hémery offers an explanation in a catalogue essay entitled "Un âge d’or sans vitrine" (where he, in passing, criticizes among other things pseudo cultural democratization and the current sentimentality seen in the observation of human disasters afforded by CISM [2]) : "The beautiful smooth art of the genre painters and their determination to conceal their labor and their pictorial cooking" runs contrary to "the unbridled expression of the artist’s personality" required by our contemporary society. "The technique of impeccable execution obviously does not allow the artist to explore his doubts. However, the wealth of information contained in each picture constitutes a satisfying reward for the patient and attentive observer."

Curator : Carole Blumenfeld

Collective work, Petits théâtres de l’intime. La peinture de genre française entre Révolution et Restauration, Musée des Augustins, 2011, 36€, 176p., ISBN : 9782901820420.

Visitor information : Musée des Augustins, 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse. Tel : +33 (0)5 61 22 21 82. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, until 9 pm on Wednesdays. Tickets : Exhibition and museum : 8€ (reduced rate : 5€) ; exhibition only : 3€ (reduced : 2€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, dimanche 27 novembre 2011


[1] Carole Blumenfeld, curator for the exhibition, devoted her dissertation to Marguerite Gérard and organized an exhibition at the Musée Cognac-Jay in 2009. See article

[2] Critical Incident Stress Management

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