“There Is Much to Discover About 18th-Century French Painting”


While the French Impressionists are well known from many exhibitions across the years, the same is not true of their 18th century predecessors. In fact, Watteau, Fragonard, and many of their contemporaries are sometimes dismissed as merely decorative artists without the depth and complexity of later French painters and sculptors. That doesn’t mean that acquisitive American collectors didn’t include them in their shopping lists, however, and an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington reveals perhaps for the first time the extent to which 18th-century French painting were acquired by American collectors.

Curator of the exhibition “America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting” is Yuriko Jackall, who studied and worked in France for 10 years before coming to Washington, DC to join the staff of the National Gallery of Art as curator of French 18th century paintings. Prior to the exhibition’s opening on Sunday, May 21, she talked about the show and its origins.

France-Amérique: What’s the story behind this exhibition?

Yuriko Jackall: When I came back to America I discovered that I had a very different idea of 18th-century French painting, one that was shaped by the way in which the subject is taught in France, with a fair amount of disdain, I would say, for the more decorative paintings of Francois Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The National Gallery collection is very much shaped by a specific group of American industrialists with East Coast, early 20th century taste — and this was not just specific to the National Gallery. I began to think about this idea: how much collectors can shape the taste of the paintings of an entire century. It’s a point that I try to carry through the exhibition.

Because many of the paintings in the United States were acquired in what is sometimes called the Gilded Age of American collecting, precisely in the early part of the 20th century?

There are a couple of key moments when this specific collecting was evolving. In 1815, Joseph Bonaparte [Napoleon’s older brother] comes to this country; he brings his collection of French 18th century art which he puts on view, and he lends much of it to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. That’s the moment when Americans start becoming aware of the quality of 18th-century French painting. The next moment is 100 years later, when Henry Clay Frick purchases Fragonard’s panels The Progress of Love and installs them in New York. Everybody in his circle comes to see them. It started interest in decorative painting and sparked a new interest in 18th-century France and the different things that can be done with these works of art.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of a Young Woman Playing a Lyre, c. 1786. © Cincinnati Art Museum

The exhibition comprises 68 works from several museums, and only two works from the National Gallery’s own collection. Why?

The exhibition has two main goals: presenting the best, most unusual and most engaging 18th-century French works from American collections across the country, and trying to highlight museums that are lesser-known and more far-flung. It’s a chance to see things that might otherwise be difficult geographically. I tried to go everywhere there might be 18th-century French paintings, look at everything and start constructing a checklist. I borrowed two works from our gallery. Of course, there were other works that I could have included but it really became a question of trying to find a balance and trying to find a story.

Are you saying that whereas French Impressionists are well known in this country through a long succession of exhibitions over many years, there is still much to discover in the field of 18th-century French painting?

Yes, it is a taste that is not fully acknowledged, nor fully understood. The breadth and quality of American holdings in this art aren’t fully acknowledged either.

Do you not think that many 18th-century French paintings portray the last hurrah of a society living on borrowed time, with the French Revolution a few years away? Take, for example, Fragonard’s “Blind Man’s Buff”. Couldn’t this painting be a metaphor of the French aristocracy refusing to see the growing signs of unrest?

At the time the painting was done by Fragonard, who was very much embedded in French society, it’s hard to imagine that he had the foresight to know what was going to happen, although there are signs that French aristocratic society was reaching a certain level of decadence. But I think that Americans do see this connection. Because of the way American taste for this type of art has evolved, there may have been a sympathy for the “lost” ancient regime, and it’s among Americans that there’s this kind of nostalgia.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Drunken Cobbler, 1776–1779. © Portland Art Museum

Do you have a favorite painting in the exhibition?

If I must pick one, it would be Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Drunken Cobbler. It shows a man who’s coming home, and his family are all reproaching him because he’s drunk. He’s a cobbler but his children don’t have shoes. It’s painted with such a sophisticated palate, and when you start looking closely you see that the gestures and the facial expressions are right out of 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin. It’s a perfect metaphor for what the exhibition is about, how the tastes are culled from different directions and are bound together. I love the fact that this work was in the collection of the Marquis de Berry in the 18th century, a major collector who was a supporter of Greuze, and is now one of the masterpieces at the Portland, Oregon Art Museum, having made a journey across the Atlantic and across the entire span of America.

America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
From May 21 to August 20