Some months ago I noticed in one of the Art Blogs that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art was going to have an exhibition from the École des Beaux Arts. The arts of France having been my primary field of expertise I was excited but surprised that this specialized exhibit would be shown there. After further investigation I found out the exhibition was done under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts and there would be four venues. One of them was much closer to home at the Albuquerque Art Museum and we went to the opening, 10 days ago.
There is a connection to our current art world, however. I wrote recently about the Taos Society of Artists and some of them, such as Robert Henri and E. Irving Couse, studied in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts.
The École des Beaux-Arts was founded under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in the 17th century as the Ecole de l’ Académie royale de peinture et sculpture. It was a school to learn painting, sculpture but foremost how to draw, something we see little of these days. Drawing was thought of as the basis for all the arts and the exhibition “Gods & Heroes” gives us plenty of examples.
In order to show some of the early influencers … and draw audience… there is a small Leonardo drawing which was not lent to the other American venues but it is by no means a show stopper. There is also a little Rembrandt. But in the area of French art there is a spectacular Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). It is a sheet of Studies with 2 women, a Harlequin and 2 men’s and 2 women’s heads. You need to be in front of the original to see them all!
It is a bit of a misnomer to call this exhibition a show of masterpieces because more important, it shows the training that the young artists gained when they came to the school. We see many of the exercises that were given to the students such as learning about anatomy illustrated by images of skeletal bones and muscles. Most impressive is the Ecorché (flayed figure) done as a study for a figure of John the Baptist by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) when he was a student at the school. He produced many different plasters in varying sizes, which soon became the model at art schools across Europe for classical sculpture supplanting even classical antiquities. Shown here is his first bronze cast of the sculpture from 1790 which is shown with a classical antiquity of a female torso which had been sent back to the school by the arist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) who was at the time director of the Académie de France in Rome.
The annual competitions in which the students participated prompting them to put their best foot forward are represented in a line-up of ambitious history paintings.
There are also a number of incredible works of art. When you enter the beautifully installed galleries the wall which has the didactic panel explaining the basis of the exhibition and giving all the necessary credits for donations that make the show possible has a classic portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743). It is familiar since there are several versions; this one, however, was commissioned for the École des Beaux-Arts where it has resided for the last 300 years. To give it a proper sense of place as the introduction to the school a pair of fabulous Louis XIV carved and gilded torchères were sent along as well. They too were created in the late 17th century with figures representing Geometry and Astronomy respectively. There may very well have been some of the other sciences represented in the original set. It is incredible that such fragile objects where the gilding can flake off with the slightest jarring would be sent around the world for what is basically a drawing, painting and sculpture exhibition.
Other highlights include a painting of “Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus's Disease” from 1774 by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and paintings by Ingres. Here is the David as well as the Ingres Torso which he painted in 1800, the light makes this simple academic exercise exciting. The works of art are all from of the school’s collection and are illustrated with the Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.