The Dahesh Museum of Art, a unique institution devoted to academic 19th-century art, begins the season ensconced in new digs. It occupies the handsomely refurbished underground space at Madison Avenue and 56th Street that served as former home first to the IBM Gallery and then to the New York branch of Al Neuharth's Newseum.
The Dahesh premieres its new base of operation with a selection of works from the permanent collection and an ambitious loan show, "French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873." Earlier this year, as part of the Maestà? di Roma celebration in Rome, a larger version of the exhibition was shown at the Academy of France in Rome at the Villa Medici, the French Academy's home since 1803.
That's only appropriate, as the French Academy in Rome trained many of the top French academic artists of the 19th century. Young male French art students struggled through long competitions to win the right to study at this august institution. Winning the Prix de Rome meant five years of free room, board, classes, studio space and a small stipend in return for yearly works to be exhibited, critiqued and, hopefully, bought back in Paris. It was the making of most of the artists who triumphed.
Academic art emphasizes refined technical abilities, especially good draughtsmanship and a smooth finish. In subject matter, the nude (both male and female) as part of an historical, mythological or religious narrative represents the pinnacle of a strict hierarchy of subject matter. A perfect example is Hippolyte Flandrin's Figure Study: Polites, Son of Priam, Observing the Movements of the Greeks towards Troy (1834).
Modern art turned academic concerns on their head. It also makes much of this work seem stolid, overly moralistic, sentimental or too unbelievable to feel much about. Yet, in the right hands, like Flandrin's, academic art can still delight.
For that reason, no art lover will want to miss "French Artists in Rome." It's an exhilarating combination of great works by the known and unknown (at least now), earnest student trials and astonishing successes, kitschy sentimental pieces and, occasionally, the just plain dull. The selection of roughly 130 drawings, paintings, and sculptures virtually guarantees that each viewer will find something new to excite or incite him or her.
Jean August Dominique Ingres' restrained Antiochus and Stratonice (ca.1858-60) and mile Jean Horace Vernet's rousing Start of the Race of Riderless Horses (ca.1820) are both remarkable, fully realized achievements and completely different from one another. They are easily classified as Classical and Romantic, respectively.
But what makes most 19th century work so interesting is the way that the cross-currents of the age -- Neoclassism, Romanicism, Realism and Symbolism -- can be combined in a single work.
A Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux sculpture, Palombella Wearing a "Panno" (a "panno" is the fabric headdress) from the 1860s, is an exciting study of an individual and a convincing example of local color. Considering the closed eyes, the terracotta can also be seen as a symbolic memorial to the model. She was an Italian peasant girl that Carpeaux pursued, only to lose her to an Italian shepherd and then to death shortly thereafter, according to the show's catalogue. Carpeaux is now best remembered for his The Dance on the faade of the Opra in Paris and many important realist portrait busts.
In addition to the academicians, other students took classes at the French Academy when in Rome. One of them was Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas. His early, pre-Impressionist Woman on a Terrace or Young Woman with Ibis (1857-8, repainted 1860-62), started out classical in feeling but was repainted as a bit of exotica. The highly saturated color of his late pastels has already arrived in the flaming ibis. It's a strange and fascinating canvas, one of five studies and paintings by Degas in the show.
I chatted at the opening with the curator of the Dahesh, Roger Diederen, who organized the exhibition with Olivier Bonfait of the Acadmie de France Rome. Diederen stressed to me the dedication of the Dahesh to presenting fresh work, the many forgotten academic works from all over the world that have been ignored and have rarely, or never, been seen here. He and the Dahesh have certainly lived up to that goal on this occasion.
"French Artists in Rome" starts out with a gorgeous, highly finished watercolor of the Academy by the Swiss-born Salomon Corrodi. His View of the Villa Medici and Gardens (1844), suffused with bright sunlight, has St. Peter's in the background.
Many of the white marbles on display I had not seen before, although some were too idealized to matter. Ernest Hiolle's Narcissus from 1868, for example, looked less self-absorbed than wilted. But then there was a statue of The Infant St. John the Baptist by Jules LaFrance (ca. 1878). Another white marble, this striding figure was filled with boyish exuberance or perhaps spiritual exultation. It packed a tremendous emotional wallop whatever the preferred interpretation.
Other happy surprises? A small oil-on-paper View of Lake Nemi (1811) by Antoine-Flix Boisselier, hardly a big name, but his work is totally charming with its spot of fire on a distant shore. Another beguiling oil is the even tinier Rome: View Taken from the Window of the Artist (1825), a very early painting by the soon-to-be much, much better-known Jean Baptiste Camille Corot.
Of course, there are flamboyant pictures, too. Adolph-William Bouguereau, a master technician, love him or hate him, turns in a thrilling Battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths (1852). The red drapery surrounding the nude female captive is electric and writhes like a snake.
But as for over-the-top compositions, Joseph-Paul Blanc's ten by five feet oil of Perseus (1869) is hard to beat. Perseus gallops into the skies astride Pegasus while hoisting the shrieking head of Medusa as he goes. The compressed framing focuses the viewer directly on the ascending horse and rider and never lets go.
The head of an Italian woman by Thodore Gricault, impressive moody figure paintings by Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and a grouping of small Roman views by Charles-Philippe Larivire, the last perspicaciously plucked from Muse de Picardie, are all to be savored.
Not everything is as good. Paul Flandrin's drab view of the Roman campagna or the generic Communion of the Apostles by Jules-Elie Delaunay are not in the same league.
No matter. Go! There's plenty to enjoy, not the least of which are the new galleries.
"French Artists in Rome" remains on view through Nov. 2, 2003, and "Reframing Academic Art: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art" through Feb. 8, 2004. Note: The Dahesh has installed an expanded museum shop on its Madison Avenue streetfront, and plans eventually to open a caf on the second-floor mezzanine.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.