Masters of French Painting, 1290-1920, at the Wadsworth Atheneum

<i>Masters of French Painting, 1290-1920, at the Wadsworth Atheneum</i>

This sumptuous volume is a feast for lovers of French art. Presenting more than 130 artworks from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, it covers seven centuries, from the miniatures of a medieval Apocalypse (School of Lorraine, c. 1290) to works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Redon, Vuillard and Bonnard.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in the United States, was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, a wealthy Hartford art collector. Intending to establish a “Gallery of Fine Arts”, he was instead persuaded to open an “atheneum”— the 19th-century term for a cultural institution that often included a library and headquarters for literary, artistic and scientific clubs. Wadsworth, whose original collection contained 79 paintings and three sculptures, first collected American art—the museum is still known for its unsurpassed collection of Hudson River School landscapes—but since Wadsworth’s day the collection has broadened and is now international in scope, with more than 50,000 artworks spanning 5,000 years, encompassing Greek and Roman antiquities, European and American decorative arts, prints, furniture and contemporary art.

The collection of French art benefited from the policies of a dynamic young museum director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, who during his tenure (1927– 1944) brought the museum into the modern age. In the 1930s the Atheneum presented America’s first Surrealist show and its first comprehensive Picasso retrospective; having introduced dance, film, music and photography to the museum, Austin also sponsored the immigration to the United States of choreographer George Balanchine and brought Gertrude Stein, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí and other famous figures to Hartford.

Highlights of the Atheneum’s internationally recognized collection of French art are currently on show at the museum, in the exhibit Medieval to Monet (Oct 19–Jan 27, 2013). This book is the catalog of that exhibit. Arranged chronologically, it presents the collection’s most significant holdings, including 17th-century religious works by Poussin and Claude Lorrain (Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain in French); 18th-century genre paintings and portraits by Boucher, Robert and Vigée-Lebrun; and 19th-century paintings by Géricault, Delacroix, Monet, Renoir and others.

Boucher’s rosy-cheeked flirting couples are here, as are Daubigny’s landscapes and Degas’s dancers, but there are also scores of paintings by lesser-known artists whose work comes as a delightful discovery.

Especially interesting are the commentaries by Eric M. Zafran, the museum’s Curator of European Art. Each one is a short but fascinating art-history lesson summarizing the artist’s life and giving background information on the painting. Scholarly, witty and compulsively readable, they often include quotes from contemporary critics or illustrations of other artworks related to the painting.

With its wide range of periods, styles and subjects, this beautifully produced volume offers an enthralling overview of French art.

Masters of French Painting, 1290–1920, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, by Eric M. Zafran. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, in association with D Giles Ltd., London, 2012. 304 pages; 160 color, 70 black & white illustrations, $65

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of France Today

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