France’s Strange Moment Finds Revival Uptown

For fanciers of 18th-century French drawings-not, admittedly, a field likely to cause a box-office stampede-there are two exhibitions on view just now that are a connoisseur’s delight. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have a show of Eighteenth-Century French Drawings in New York Collections , which numbers 100 items, and at the Frick Collection we have a show of French and English Drawings of the 18th and 19th Centuries From the National Gallery of Canada , in which Boucher, Fragonard, Watteau and Greuze-the stars of the period-are well represented. Then, as an additional interest, the Frick has brought over from the collection of the National Gallery in London one of the iconic paintings of the period: Drouais’ portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1763-64).

Does all this sound a little too precious to be borne? Think again. While it is true that there is no shortage of preciosity to be seen in the paintings and drawings of the period-it has been said that even the foliage in Fragonard looks like frilly lingerie-it is also true that the art of 18th-century France abounds in reactions and reproofs to such runaway preciosity. If heedless pleasure was one of the leitmotifs of this art, so was erotic melancholy and bourgeois moralism. The period did end, after all, in one of the bloodiest revolutions Europe had ever seen-a revolution that left its mark on the art of the period, too. One of the drawings from the 1790’s in the Met show is Hubert Robert’s The Artist in His Cell at Saint-Lazare , which documents Robert’s arrest in October 1793 on suspicion of royalist sympathies. It was a more complicated century than many museumgoers are prepared to expect.

In this regard, it is worth recalling what the Goncourt brothers wrote in their chapter on Greuze in their classic study of The Art of the 18th Century (1856-75): “It was a strange moment for the aging 18th century, as if the heart of a rake had declined into its second childhood! Humanity, charity, these words seemed suddenly to have the quality of a revelation. Unhappiness became interesting, destitution touching.… Family life was revived. Marriage was rediscovered. The gravity of happiness succeeded the buoyancy of pleasure. Bourgeois felicity was in apotheosis. Home life was glorified. The gods of Duty returned to the household. It was fashionable to be a mother and splendid to be a nurse; between the lips of a suckling the maternal breast rose in pride.… A sweet and warm emotion floated in the atmosphere of these troubled, trembling years, during which arose the dawn and storm of a revolution.”

To represent the pleasure principle in 18th-century French drawings, nothing could be better than Fragonard’s illustrations for the tales of La Fontaine, of which there are three delightful examples in the Met show. As Perrin Stein writes in the catalogue of the show. “No artist … was more suited to evoking the lighthearted ribaldry of La Fontaine’s stories than Fragonard.… Notational bursts of inspiration, tactile pleasure, and spontaneity become the visual equivalent of La Fontaine’s lighthearted and licentious tales.” These drawings are indeed a good deal more persuasive than Fragonard’s attempt at depicting heroic women in the drawing that is here called Ancient Scene , the exact subject of which is unknown but is now believed to have been drawn from a text not commonly associated with Fragonard: Saint Augustine’s City of God .

As for the bourgeois moralism that the Goncourt brothers wrote about in their customary sardonic manner, it too is well represented in both the Met and the Frick exhibitions in the drawings of Greuze: the hilarious-or so it seems to me-drawing of The Angry Wife at the Met, and the more sentimental Return of the Traveler at the Frick. It cannot really be said that The Angry Wife confirms the Goncourts’ notion that “Home life was glorified” in Greuze’s art, for the wife in this drawing is depicted as a veritable battle-ax while her husband cowers in fear, but The Return of the Traveler does evoke the “sweet and warm emotion” that the Goncourts wrote about. Is the emotion in this case a little too sweet, inclining toward bathos? Perhaps. Fragonard is certainly more fun when he isn’t attempting a posture of rectitude.

Still, Greuze is an interesting figure and has lately even become a subject of some controversy In his interesting book, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (1981), the English art historian Norman Bryson says flat-out that of all the well-known painters of his period, “Greuze is the most remote from ourselves; so remote as to be almost irretrievable.” The reason? His work, writes Mr. Bryson, “insists on an ideology of family life that we are still hotly debating.” In other words, it is the politics of what are now called “family values” that is said to have rendered Greuze “almost irretrievable.”

“The issue of the family is so much with us that it is almost impossible for us to put Greuze’s ideology into suspension, and apply the magical, dissolving gaze of the 20th century, which can recast almost any image into pure constituent form. With Greuze that magic falls, and even the most enthusiastic supporters of Greuze tend to feel embarrassed by him, as though they had fallen into low company, and to offer apologies for what seems almost a secret vice.”

This is strong stuff, or would be if not for all those almosts that allow the author an easy exit from every one of his categorical judgments. Yet the entire chapter on “Greuze and the Pursuit of Happiness” is immensely interesting, and no reader of it with an interest in Greuze is likely to forget his observation that in depicting “powerful males in their full maturity,” Greuze “distorts by depotentiation.” It is the kind of observation that puts an entire oeuvre in a new light.

Eighteenth-Century French Drawings in New York Collections and French and English Drawings of the 18th and 19th Centuries From the National Gallery of Canada remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, respectively, until April 25.

France’s Strange Moment Finds Revival Uptown