French Paintings from Maryland

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

French Paintings from Maryland


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


Both picture galleries in the populous American city of Baltimore testify the civic patriotism and munificence of two Maryland families who used their riches to enhance the lives of others: the Cones and the Walters. Fifty modern French paintings from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery have arrived at the Royal Academy on their sole visit to Europe, under the title From Ingres to Matisse. Matisse has become a turning point, since he concludes the exhibition at the Royal Academy after introducing the recent smaller exhibition, Fauve Painting, 1905-7, at the Courtauld Gallery. Chronologically the Fauves (or 'wild beasts', a scornful epithet which they cheerfully adopted) were given the last word on the contention between drawing and colour which had occupied French painters for a century, and in their view colour decidedly won.

The impeccable and perceptive draughtsman Ingres is represented by one of the anecdotal pictures in which he delighted, The Betrothal of Raphael, and the last of his four versions of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Always urbane, Raphael weakly yielded to the constant urging of his patron Bernando Dovisio, Cardinal of Bibbiena, that Raphael should take a wife and that, in particular, he should marry the Cardinal's niece Maria. Raphael, a zealous libertine, regretted his promise but reluctantly allowed the Cardinal to betroth him to Maria, although he deferred the marriage, and the subsequent loss of his independence, for as long as he could. His problem was resolved by the melancholy event of Maria's early death. Ingres based his representation of the Cardinal on Raphael's portrait of him and that of Raphael on a supposed self-portrait. In benign triumph the Cardinal draws Raphael by the wrist towards his niece for the contractual plighting of hands but she, noticing Raphael's distaste, is slow to unfold her arms. A n enigmatic youth holds back a door-curtain at the rear of the Cardinal's study which, like the Cardinal, is draped in a sullen red. Oedipus is draped only in a cloak hung from the shoulder on which he carries the spears which would later cause him so much trouble. As he answers the Sphinx, he points simultaneously to himself and to one of the Sphinx's former victims. The terrified Sphinx slowly draws back what is now a futilely extended claw and prepares to hurl herself from her rocks.

Delacroix's Christ asleep in the Storm on Galilee is an epic swirl of clouds, rain-mingled waves, ripped sails and opulent colour. As one sees from his Crucifixion and his Battle of Poitiers, hung alongside, Delacroix was rapacious for colour; especially, in picture after picture, for the cruel colour of blood.

Towards the end of his life Corot painted the dreamy landscapes generally known as his souvenirs: twilit misty olivine birchwoods, and ochre paths dappled with verdegris shadows, frequented by schoolgirl nymphs in sleeveless blue shifts. One hails nightfall over a lake in The Evening Star; another teaches a goat to dance in The Shepherds of Arcady. Although these pictures are memories of Corot's youth, they are tinged with his recollection of Claude Lorrain. Whilst Corot, like Courbet, had little time for schools and movements of painting, the Barbizon group of artists (chiefly Daubigny, Millet, Diaz and Theodore Rousseau) had plenty of time for him. Strangely their few successful landscapes were not at all like Corot's.

Theodore Rousseau's burning winter sunrise over the Qise, its darkness torch-streaked with carmine and gold, sets off a chain-shot of diamantine flames in the hoarfrost on the stony riverbank. The other Barbizon landscapes are less vivid. The views in the Forest of Fontainebleau by Diaz and Daubigny in monochrome are aptly monotonous. Millet's moonlit landscape of a sheepfold, on which he worked as hard and as honestly as one of his farmhands, is dismal and trite in effect. The primary concern in his pictures is not with scenery but with the bone-aching toil of the agrarian poor. …

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