By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities

Painting in Eighteenth Century France from the Musee Picardie, Amiens

Often considered the pinnacle of the grand French style, imposing and opulent paintings from the 18th century are presented in a major new traveling exhibition from the Musee de Picardie in Amiens, France. From the Sun King to the Royal Twilight: Painting in Eighteenth Century France provides a rich overview of French painting from the reign of Louis IV to the fall of the monarchy.

Jointly organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Musee Picardie, Amiens, the exhibition comprises 76 paintings--many quite magnificent--including the works of familiar masters such as Francois Boucher, Jean-Simeon Chardin, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Nicolas Lancret, and Hubert Robert. Other artists may be less familiar to American audiences, but held important and influential positions at court or with the powerful French Academy of Art.

Historically, these works chronicle the art styles, fashion and politics of the entire 18th century in France. This survey also reflects the shift from royal commissions to patronage by the emerging bourgeoisie, and portrays the shift away from the official and, at times, historical subjects highly prized under Louis XIV, toward an intimate and imaginative rendering of the same subjects.

The 18th century in France was a turbulent era that saw radical change in the form of a revolution that established a new order. This was also the period of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, which challenged traditional institutions and models in favor of a new philosophy and progressive educational objectives.

Defying the authority of the king and church, proponents of this intellectual revolution insisted that human conduct be governed by reason and logic. They believed that old structures of power must be removed to create a better world. Such political, economic and social changes had significant impact on the artists, their subject matter and their patronage.

The period examined by this exhibition quite correctly begins with the extraordinarily elegant portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Dress (ca. 1704-1710), from the studio of Hyacinthe Rigau y Ros, called Rigaud (1659-1743). This formal full-length depiction of the 63-year-old king in his throne room was intended to illustrate the power, style and grandeur of the royal palace.

All the regal insignia are shown, thus attesting to the power of the position including: the sword of Charlemagne, the golden crown of the kings of France, the chains of the Order of the Holy Ghost and the Golden Fleece, the gilt silver scepter tipped with a fleur-de-lis indicating royal authority, and the hand, symbol of judicial power going back to Saint Louis.

This smaller replica of the original in the Louvre Museum reflects a lavishness of the early century that became extinct by the dawn of the next century. Beginning with his acceptance into the Royal Academy in 1684, Rigaud successfully climbed the hierarchical ladder claiming the position of director at the academy and eventually court painter to both Louis XIV and Louis XV. This particular presentation of the monarch engendered numerous replicas both in France and other European courts, and it forever cemented Rigaud's elevated status from which he enjoyed a glorious and fruitful career.

Charles-Andre called Carle Vanloo (1705-1765), was commissioned to paint the extravagant and large canvas entitled The Ostrich Hunt (1738). According to the art standards of the day, the artist strove to respect the guidelines that had been prescribed for this cycle of depictions. The composition and placement of each element has been carefully choreographed to result in the greatest possible drama, even though the representation of the bird is rather fantastic. Given the unfamiliarity of this particular species, the artist probably drew inspiration and borrowed elements from other images.

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