IN 1905, Pablo Picasso was beginning his ascent to the pinnacle of the art world. One of thousands of struggling artists living and working in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris, the 24-year-old Picasso would emerge from obscurity two years later with his groundbreaking canvas, "Le Demoiselles d'Avignon." Robert Rosenblum, a leading scholar of modern art, has called this painting "a detonator of the modern movement, the cornerstone of 20th-century art." The massive work, nearly eight feet square, shook the very foundation of the art world. By incorporating all three dimensions onto a flat canvas as jagged, faceted planes, Picasso shattered nearly every known artistic convention, pushing the limits of painting to the breaking point while creating Cubism. With one painting, the centuries-old artistic traditions perfected in the Italian Renaissance were set aside as relics of the past.
That same year, a leading defender of these centuries-old traditions, the celebrated French Academic artist William Bouguereau died. Perhaps more than any other painter, Bouguereau believed that art was supposed to preserve old traditions, not create new ones. His canvases of calm, idealized, timeless peasants used the lessons of the Italian Renaissance--balance, linear perspective, and realistic three-dimensional modeling--and incorporated them into scenes that satisfied contemporary bourgeois tastes. No greater defender of the status quo in art ever existed, and no finer technician in oil paint ever put brush to canvas.
As diametrically opposed as Picasso and Bouguereau were artistically, they shared one important characteristic--they were both immensely popular. By 1949, the year Picasso painted "Girl on a Sofa," a portrait of his then-lover Francoise Gilot, his fame and popularity had far surpassed that of Bouguereau. Certainly, both were master artists who satisfied modern tastes. If Picasso's faceted surfaces in "Girl on a Sofa" respond to certain realities of post-atomic modern life, Bouguereau's beautiful women and children in paintings like "Innocence" respond to a modern sense of paradise lost. Both artists searched for truth and beauty through the medium of the human figure.
Such comparisons, which begin to question the very nature of modern art, are the core premise of "Modern Masters: Corot to Kandinsky." What makes this exhibition special is the juxtaposition of so many different types of modern art. No longer are Academic and avant-garde art pitted against one another. Rather, by freely juxtaposing Bouguereau with Picasso, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot with Marc Chagall, Paul Gaugin with Jean Leon Gerome, and Pierre Auguste Renoir with Edouard Vuillard, the viewer is invited to look at modern art from about 1850 to 1950 thematically rather than stylistically.
Some comparisons, though thematically similar, are quite jarring stylistically; others are more subtle. Looking at Renoir's …