April 2010


Art in an Intimate Setting

by Louis Torres

On Becoming an Artist: The Academy in 19th-Century France,
Palitz Gallery/Dahesh Museum of Art, New York City, through April 29, 2010. Admission is free.

Only the Dahesh Museum, which currently lacks its own space, could be expected to have mounted an exhibition such as this. Selecting a few representative works from its incomparable permanent collection of nineteenth-century academic painting and sculpture, it has teamed up with a truly intimate gallery in an elegant university town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side to present a succinct introduction to (or refresher course in) an artistic tradition that had its roots in the Renaissance and inspires painters and sculptors to this day. Assistant Curator Alia Nour's brief essay in the exhibition brochure touches upon the salient features of that tradition--key among them being that "drawing was at the heart of [the] academic approach to art education."

The mostly small paintings and works on paper are all hung at about eye level and are complemented by two exquisite sculptures (one bronze, one marble) and a few bronze medallions. The centerpiece of the exhibition, not least by virtue of its size, is Bouguereau's Water Girl (see below). A few wall texts describe the competitive atmosphere and rigorous training that aspiring artists faced in nineteenth-century Paris, and adjacent labels provide relevant information regarding each work on view, with minimal curatorial "interpretation." Visitors are left alone with the art, thanks to a single unobtrusive security camera in lieu of a live guard. If all this sounds nearly ideal, it is.

Academic artists are often maligned for a boring sameness in their work. Nour begs to differ:

The rigor of academic training created artists of astonishing technical ability and imagination. And despite the heavy load of rules and restrictions placed on their development, many of these academic artists achieved extraordinary diversity and creativity.

The truth of that claim is evident even in the limited scope of Becoming an Artist, as indicated even by the exhibition highlights below. To be sure, not every piece in the show compares favorably with the best work of the period, but every sympathetic visitor is likely to find work worth knowing. If you can, go see for yourself.

* * *

The Dahesh Museum is the only public collection in the United Stares dedicated exclusively to European academic painting and sculpture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From 1995 to 2007 it had a brief but illustrious run as a "bricks and mortar" institution in New York City, first on Fifth Avenue then on Madison. During that time it held special attraction for younger visitors--who, as the Museum puts it, were "intrigued by artworks they [did] not normally see in university lecture halls or other museum galleries." The Dahesh was also the go-to museum for anyone interested in Classical Realism, the contemporary school of painting familiar to readers of Aristos that is rooted in the academic tradition. Since 2007, exhibitions culled from the collection have traveled to various museums and galleries. On Becoming an Artist is the second in a series of exhibitions presented in collaboration with Syracuse University in the Palitz Gallery, located in the university's Lubin House, on East 61st Street, just off Fifth Avenue--not far from the Frick Collection and, a bit farther uptown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Exhibition Highlights (numbers correspond to those in the exhibition brochure; nd: not dated):

1. Charles Bargue
Angel Blowing a Trumpet (after Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Ceiling), nd

2. Charles Bargue
Horse Head from the West Pediment of the Parthenon (after a drawing by Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ), c1868

3. François-Léon Benouville
Study of a Man's's Head in Profile, nd

6. François-Joseph Bosio
The Virgin Mary, 1843

7. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Water Girl (or Young Girl Going to the Spring) [more], 1885

8. Jules Breton
Study for The Snack, 1885

10. Jules-Clément Chaplain
Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1885

13. François-Xavier Fabre
Merovingians Attacking a Wild Dog, 1875-85

15. Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin
Female Nude, nd

18. Jean-Léon Gérôme
Study for Rachel, 1859

20. Henri Gervex
Study for The War Wounded, nd

21. Henri Godet
The Abduction of Psyche, c1896 [after painting of the same title by Bouguereau - inscribed: W. BOUGUEREAU P / H. GODET SCPT] [Note that the painter's name precedes that of the sculptor.]

26. Jules Ambroise Francois Naudin
Joseph's Coat Brought Back to Jacob, 1841

For further reading:

Stephen Gjertson, Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864): A Personal Appreciation

Richard Lack, Bouguereau's Legacy, Aristos, September 1982.

Scott McDowell, Dahesh Museum of Art, Syracuse University Continue Collaboration with Second Exhibition at Palitz Gallery, Inside SU, February 23, 2010.

Louis Torres, The Dahesh Museum: Reclaiming Academic Art, Aristos, December 2003.

"Who Was Charles Bargue? Aristos, Notes & Comments, December 2003.

Exhibition Brochure:

Readers who cannot travel to New York to visit the exhibition in person may request a free copy of the illustrated six-page full-color brochure (8 ½ x 11 in.), which includes a detailed listing of all 28 exhibited works. Send $1.00 for postage and handling to Aristos, P.O. Box 20134, Park West Station, New York, NY 10025.