"The Arts of France, from François I to Napoleon I, a Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein’s Presence in New York," Oct. 26, 2005-Jan. 6, 2006, at Wildenstein & Co., 19 East 64th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
There are art dealers. And there is Wildenstein. In the annals of the art trade, no art dealer has quite the same cachet or mystery. Whereas most dealers are content to flip a picture, take their profit and move on, the Wildensteins have had the enviable luxury of being able to hold the choicest items of stock for decades at a time, offering them whenever the mood strikes. Or not.
Now, for its two-years-late centennial celebration -- the gallery actually opened its New York showroom in 1903 -- Wildenstein has offered a rare reminder to those who bemoan the disappearance from the art market of great Old Masters. "The Arts of France from François I to Napoléon I" is a rich selection from the gallery’s deep holdings of French paintings, drawings and works of art. Organized by Guy Wildenstein and catalogued by Joseph Baillio, the exhibition is a benefit for the American Friends of the Louvre; general admission is $10.
Although we have no shortage of collectors and museums eager to acquire 19th-century French art, French art from the 16th through the 18th centuries has long been perversely neglected. At the turn of the 20th century, "Palissy" faience and Sant-Porchere ceramics were among the most expensive works or art one could buy, and no smart drawing room was complete without a sleek pink and silvery blue Rococo Diana by Jean-Marc Nattier above the mantel. By the 1940s, the taste for earlier French art was considered to be fussy and old-ladyish and was largely supplanted by the mania for Impressionism (in bleached Louis XV frames), plus a taste for modern and contemporary art.
Though the tide has turned somewhat -- in recent years the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have purchased notable older French paintings and pastels (the latter particularly unfashionable), American collectors largely shy away from them in favor of the 17th-century Dutch school paintings and 18th-century Venetian vedute.
The Wildenstein exhibition demonstrates that opportunities remain for those willing to broaden their collecting tastes.
The small group of 16th-century works is highlighted by a historically significant though worn Portrait of François I as St. John the Baptist (1518) by Jean Clouet, which Wildenstein has just donated to the Louvre. Also on view is an even finer, unpublished Portrait of Doña Anna Mauriquez by Corneille de Lyon. Corneille headed a large workshop that specialized in small bust-length portraits, usually with pale green backgrounds, and only recently has it been determined that the artist himself painted but a miniscule number of them (among them the Wildenstein picture). The exceptional quality of Doña Anna is comparable only to the Portrait of Pierre Aymeric in the Louvre.
The four exquisitely refined terracotta herms from the Château d’Oiron were bought by Wildenstein in 1944 from one of the J.P. Morgan sales at Parke-Bernet (where they had been miscataloged as "late 17th century") and have been tucked away ever since. The fifth, least beautiful surviving herm is in the Louvre -- how soon before the Wildenstein four rejoin it?
As for 17th-century pictures, the show features a good Rebecca and Eliezar at the Well (ca. 1627) by Nicolas Poussin and an exceptional stage design in chalk and ink wash on four horizontally joined sheets by Claude Lorrain, showing a classical landscape with the Roman Coliseum (1666) that was bought by Georges Wildenstein from Agnew’s in 1918. But it is the unheralded Sebastien Bourdon who makes the strongest impression, with a deeply moving silvery Correggesque Deposition formerly at Spencer House and a sensitive Portrait of an Architect, which has been tucked away and unpublished since 1952.
The 18th-century pictures are naturally the strongest area in the exhibition -- but even Wildenstein cannot show Watteau at his best here, for the two drawings by him in the show are surprisingly weak, and the Alliance of the Theaters of Paris, a ca. 1715 oil of an allegorical coat-of-arms, is more interesting than beautiful. Surprisingly, Watteau is trumped by his follower Nicholas Lancret, whose Hunter in A Landscape anticipates Gainsborough in its silvery palette and feathery touch and his unique religious painting of The Ecstasy of St. Theresa makes a piquant rococo contrast with Bernini’s famously baroque convolutions on the same subject.
The strength and depth of Wildenstein’s 18th-century French holdings is amply demonstrated by the number of Bouchers (eight) and Fragonards (nine) on view. Perhaps the greatest Boucher remaining in private hands is Venus as Protectress of the Arts of Music and Drawing (ca. 1754), painted for Madame de Pompadour and inherited by her brother the Marquis de Marigny, who was appointed by Louis XV to be director of his fine arts administration (and, unlike present-day political cronies, was by all accounts an efficient and astute administrator). Perhaps the most decorous Venus ever painted by the artist, she is here in the guise of a beautiful Olympian schoolmarm, inspiring a putto as he draws what appears to be a trellis on a white, primed canvas. More typical perhaps are the pendant ovals of Venus Disarming Cupid and Caressing Venus, painted for Pompadour’s royal lover Louis XV for his Château de Choisy, which exemplify the sinuous, silken eroticism that ultimately derives from Primaticcio and the School of Fontainebleau.
Following Boucher’s example, Fragonard adds a droll sauciness in his delightful Venus Withholding a Kiss From Cupid, painted in lighter touch and brighter palette. But the Fragonard to covet here is the Girl Holding A Letter, an oil sketch painted in dark and rich browns, blacks and reds, the girl’s sleeves a vibrant, nervous white. Dreamily looking out to the distance, the girl holds her letter tightly. The canvas flickers with anticipation, anxiety and mystery - Is she about to read it or mail it? In this little unheralded masterpiece, Daumier seems only a heartbeat away.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.