18th Century French Art in America in Washington D.C.

18th Century French Art in America in Washington D.C.

National Gallery of Art- through August 20, 2017

Gathered from museums across the United States, the 68 French paintings in this engaging exhibit represent a wide array of artists, subjects, and historic themes.

Americans have long been enchanted with 18th century France and its aristocracy, fashion, philosophy and new ways of thinking. They collected French art in pursuit of these ideals, and also for the elegance and wealth these works symbolise. For example, many paintings display opulent wardrobes of the period — lavish furs, shimmery silks, and delicate lace — and help to convey the wealth and sophistication of the collector.

François Boucher- Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, 1750. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Charles E. Dunlap
Imaging Department (C) President and Fellows of Harvard College

You’ll get a sense of this opulence as you’re greeted at the exhibit entrance by the striking portrait of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. At her makeup table, she is applying a bright pink rouge that matches the bows of her elegant, luminous dress. In fact, the Marquise loved this certain pink so much that the color was later called rose Pompadour. A vision of beauty and composure, 18th century style.

Madame de Pompadour proved to be much more than a pretty mistress to Louis XV; she was one of the most celebrated art collectors of the time. A true tastemaker, her artistic choices helped influence the art scene in France and beyond.

She first started collecting art in the 1740s to decorate the estates given to her by the king. For example, the two paintings adjacent to her portrait here are The Bath of Venus and The Toilet of Venus. Painted by her favourite artist, François Boucher, they were hung in her private rooms. Over the years, these pieces — and her aesthetic influence — crossed borders to new owners. The Toilet of Venus was eventually procured by the Vanderbilts and The Bath of Venus went to the Rothschild family.

François Boucher
The Toilette of Venus, 1751
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920 (20.155.9)

Paintings in another gallery of the exhibit all share the theme of love and seduction, and we’re drawn to The Abduction of Europa, by Noël Nicolas Coypel. While Americans were initially shocked by the nudity in this piece, they embraced the beauty of the composition and the tale of Jupiter’s attraction to the nymph Europa. This impressive piece was owned by Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon, who left France in 1815 and lived in the state of New Jersey. Bonaparte displayed his substantial collection of sculpture, decorative arts, and more than 200 paintings. He shared his love of art by welcoming Americans to visit and even lent works to the Philadelphia Academy of Art.

Once Bonaparte returned to France, many of these works were donated or sold to collectors and they remained in the States; this piece is currently part of the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

François Boucher
The Bath of Venus, 1751
oil on canvas
overall: 107 x 84.8 cm (42 1/8 x 33 3/8 in.) framed: 132.1 x 110.2 x 7.6 cm (52 x 43 3/8 x 3 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

Other galleries in this exhibit present works grouped by themes such as science and nature, including beautiful still life and landscape pieces, and also music and theater, featuring prominent performers of the era.

National Gallery of ArtConstitution and 6th Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20001, Tel: 202-842-6905


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Phil Tremo is the France Today Ambassador for Washington DC. Phil has been charmed by France ever since a school trip to the popular Festival d’Avignon. Over the years, he has explored many regions of l’Hexagone, including a recent vacation to Champagne to pick grapes during harvest season - Santé! Back at home in Washington, D.C., he enjoys a variety of French cultural events, including films, concerts, and language classes. He is excited to be representing France Today in the D.C. area.

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  • Martha Sessums
    2017-06-18 13:03:14
    Martha Sessums
    This sounds like an amazing exhibit. Thanks for the nice review, Phil.