Art de Triomphe

The Norton's exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century paintings is pure French bliss

You won't find any trendy installation in "The Triumph of French Painting: Masterpieces from Ingres to Matisse," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. No interactive or conceptual work. Nothing contemporary that ambitiously sets out to redefine art.

You will find gallery after gallery of gorgeous oil paintings. This grandly titled exhibition, organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, pretty much lives up to its hype. And it's packing 'em in -- the day I visited, the parking lot was filled to overflowing, so that all but the earliest arrivals had to find spots in adjacent residential areas.

Don't get me wrong: I'm still a big believer in the cutting-edge shows regularly featured at such venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth. But there's something bracing about an exhibition of older art by acknowledged masters.

It's post(impressionism) time in Degas' Before the Race (1882-84)
It's post(impressionism) time in Degas' Before the Race (1882-84)

And that's just what "The Triumph of French Painting" gives us: more than 50 paintings by 30 French artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, along with two each by a Dutchman (van Gogh) and a Spaniard (Picasso) who were active in France during the same period. The show is organized thematically, beginning with "Neoclassicism vs. Romanticism," continuing through "Academic Painting," "Nature and Realism," "Impressionism," and "Post-Impressionism," working up to a grand finale with "Into Modernism."

The entry gallery, focusing on the early 19th Century, contrasts the neoclassicism of, for example, Marguerite Gérard and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres with the romanticism of Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix and Antoine-Louis Barye. (The artists are typically identified by their full names, which is both fascinating and a little grandiose.)

Who comes out on top? It depends. If you pit Ingres' stodgy The Betrothal of Raphael and the Niece of Cardinal Bibbiena (1813) against the vivid, turbulent imagery of Delacroix's Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854), romanticism rules. If, however, you compare Barye's sentimental animal portrait Tiger at Rest (after 1859) with Ingres' Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), neoclassicism holds its own. The rich composition of the latter, which includes a beefy Oedipus confronting the horrified Sphinx with the answer to her riddle, is chilling and unforgettable (and served as the inspiration for an equally memorable Francis Bacon painting, executed more than a century later).

The artists in the "Academic Painting" section continue to focus on classical subject matter, as in Jean-Léon Gérôme's showy The Death of Caesar (1867). Even more flamboyant is Marc-Gabriel-Charles Gleyre's Lost Illusions (1865­67), about which the artist says, "an aging poet watches as a mysterious boat carries away his youthful dreams and illusions, personified by music-making maidens and a cupid strewing flowers." (The image was supposedly inspired by a vision Gleyre had on the banks of the Nile in 1835.)

Moving into the "Nature and Realism" section of the show, you'll find a greater emphasis on landscapes and rural scenes as we edge ever closer to modernism: Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet's The Shaded Stream at Le Puits Noir (1860­65), a serene grotto with large rocks enclosing the seemingly still water; and Jean-François Millet's The Goose Girl (c. 1863), with a languorous nude taking a break at water's edge while her gaggle waits nearby.

Another Millet, The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856­60), is an atmospheric rural scene with a flock of sheep and its shepherds overshadowed by a huge waning moon that glows just above the horizon and bathes the scene with a pale, eerie light. A nearby quote from the artist reads, "Oh, how I wish I could make those who see my work feel the splendors and terrors of the night!" He succeeds beautifully in this piece.

From here on out, the stylistic changes get more abrupt and dramatic. In the "Impressionist" gallery, we're reminded how radically such artists as Oscar-Claude Monet and the underappreciated Alfred Sisley changed the direction of French art with their near-obsession with the play of light.

Monet's magnificent Charing Cross Bridge (Reflections on the Thames) (1901­4), painted from his room at the Savoy Hotel, is best described by the artist himself: "The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors.... [O]bjects change in appearance more and quicker in a London fog than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas." With Waterloo Bridge (Effect of Sun with Smoke) (1903), Monet goes even further, so that the bridge and everything else in the image is rendered almost unidentifiable by the shimmering haze.

Sisley, who was a classmate of Monet's and contributed five pictures to the first official impressionist group exhibition, is represented here by two very fine landscapes: View of Saint-Mammès (c. 1880), in which the title port town at the confluence of two rivers is upstaged by the thick, vigorous brush strokes Sisley used to capture the water and the surrounding greenery in the foreground; and The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring (1875), a sweeping panorama that captures the Seine valley west of Paris.

The exhibition's "Post-Impressionism" section is a showcase for artists whose innovations set modernism on its way. Mont Saint-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (c. 1897), one of Paul Cézanne's larger-than-life landscapes, is dotted with the blocky geometric shapes that would later play such a large part in cubism. In Vincent van Gogh's Landscape with Figures (1889), the peasants in the fields are almost lost among the short, thick brush strokes, while his A Pair of Boots (1887) is a simple image of worn work boots that has an unaccountably poignant air.

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