The Problematics of Collecting and Display, Part 2

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Modern French Painting and the Art Museum

Richard R. Brettell

For most members of the public, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting is the glory of large-scale American art museums. The Impressionist galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston serve as the crowning spaces in their larger installations of European easel painting, and most of these Impressionist galleries have the highest attendance of any permanent collection spaces in the museums. This is in marked contrast to Europe, where, with the exceptions of the National Galleries of Berlin and London and, by fluke, the Hermitage and Pushkin Museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow, nineteenth-century French painting is either segregated from earlier art (as it is in Paris and Munich) or is almost altogether absent, as it is in Vienna, Madrid, or Milan.

International--and particularly British and American--scholarship in the area of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist French painting has been fervent and exciting during the last generation. Books, dissertations, exhibition catalogues, articles, and critical reviews have been produced in an attempt to rethink, reattribute, redate, retitle, and research virtually every artist, medium, artistic movement, and critical stance in French art from 1850 until World War I, and many of the methodological developments in this hotly debated field have led to critical breakthroughs in other areas of the history of art. Interestingly, many of these contributions to the history of art have been made under the aegis of art museums, whose exhibitions, publications, colloquia, and lecture programs have provided both a forum for critical debate in front of a nonuniversity audience and a chance for museum and university scholars to test their ideas in collaboration.

If this "velocity of exchange" (to use a concept from economic theory) has characterized scholarship, it has also affected the permanent collections in American (and British) museums. The National Gallery of Art in London has not only nearly tripled its collection of French nineteenth-century painting in the last fifteen years, but has also placed it in prominent galleries immediately adjacent to the main entrance on Trafalgar Square. And the permanent collection galleries of Impressionist painting in Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington have had carefully planned and expensive reinstallations during the past decade. The reinstallations have not merely been a reshuffling of familiar objects; they have also resulted from major acquisitions or from a reappraisal of works of art--such as "academic" painting or symbolist art--much of which had been in inaccessible storage in the last generation.

In many ways, these new installations have had a conservatizing effect on the modernist discourse to which the paintings contribute. Paintings that in most university courses continue to be taught as "radical," "subversive," and "avant-garde"--as the confident beginnings of modernist art--have been placed in superb nineteenth-century skylit galleries as the culmination of five centuries of European painting. What, for academic art historians, is a separation of modernist art from its academic traditions is, for many museums, the opposite. In Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and London one can see Renoir in a dialogue with Fragonard or Cezanne as the logical successor to Poussin. And Manet's many allusions to Italian and Spanish Old Master painting are clearer in all these institutions than they are at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, which is quite a hike from the Louvre. This view of modern art as a part of--rather than a separation from--the greatness of the Western tradition is also emphasized by smaller American museums such as the Kimbell Art Museum, the Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Toledo Museum of Art. …