Monet and Gérôme: the Apples and Oranges of French Fin de Siècle Painting
In Paris, Parisians and tourists alike are going wild for Monet. The Grand Palais’ exhibition “Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)”, which has been running since September, is so popular it has extended its opening hours for the final stretch including 24 hour openings for the final days (January 21 – 24).
The show brings together almost 200 works by the artist from 70 museums around the world and is the first retrospective of the artist on home territory since 1980. Indeed Monet is often overlooked in France, seen as “light”: popular with tourists and on greetings cards but not to be taken seriously. This exhibition aims to reassess his contribution to the history of art. Guy Cogeval, one of the curators and director of the Musée d’Orsay, France’s national museum dedicated to nineteenth centurt art, was keen to rehabilitate Monet’s reputation in France. “We [the French] are a bit like spoilt children” Congeval told Le Figaro, “the Anglo-Saxons have written everything on Monet for the last 30 years”. A conference on Impressionism at the Musée d’Orsay in December 2009 must have confirmed Congeval’s fears, with three quarters of the speakers coming from Britain and America.
The works on show have come from all over the world, including American and Russian institutions as well as private collections. Despite the international enthusiasm to loan, domestic organizations were less keen. The Musée Marmottan, also in Paris and boasting the largest collection of Monets anywhere in the world, declined to participate, organizing their own Monet retrospective instead: “Monet: son musée”. The most glaring lack, picked up by most commentators is the iconic 1872 painting of a sunrise, “Impression: soleil levant”. This coastal scene, depicting ship masts in the early morning mists of Le Havre, gave Impressionism its name. It is part of the Musée Marmottan’s collection and features proudly on the cover of the catalogue that accompanies the Marmottan show.
As well as pride, the Musée Marmottan’s decision is, of course, driven by economic factors. Judging by the popularity of the two Monet shows, both institutions can be pretty happy with ticket sales.
The Musée d’Orsay, co-organizer of the Grand Palais show and home to many a Monet in its permanent collection, brings us a less lucrative, but more challenging exhibition, “The Spectacular Art of Jean Léon Gérôme”. This show is the first monograph of the artist in France since his death in 1904 (and you thought Monet had waited a long time!), and brings us the flipside of the fuzzy, plein air Impressionists: the clear lines, naturalistic detail and meticulously constructed narratives of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s paintings.
Gérôme, perhaps more than Monet, needs a reputation overhaul. Often seen as a reactionary, he stood staunchly by the academic tradition, resisting the move towards the great nineteenth century isms: Realism and Impressionism. But the Orsay exhibition presents him as an innovator rather than a conformist. His paintings may not have the evident formal innovations of Monet or Courbet but the show talks about the “paradoxical modernity” in Gérôme’s work, drawing a comparison between the artist’s innovative staging of drama and the twentieth century art of cinematography, from Peplum films to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”.
Unlike the impressionists, Gérome didn’t take much inspiration from his contemporary surroundings, turning instead to classical tales and antique architecture, scenes from history and the imaginary Orient. The Orientalist paintings are perhaps the most impressive part of the show. Although the artist visited Constantinople, Egypt and Syria, the oriental scenes he created are text book Edward Saïd (a Gérôme painting is even reproduced on the cover of the Vintage Books edition of “Orientalism”). While the carefully rendered decorative tiles and Egyptian architecture may be observed from life (and brought back from travels in photographic form), the voluptuous women bathing, or for sale, and young boys charming snakes are pure fantasy, designed in accordance with literary references and European expectations of what the “Orient” was like.
One of Gérôme’s portraits, from 1877, is of another nineteenth century heavyweight, Charles Garnier, who has his own exhibition down the road at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Like Gérôme, Garnier is not the first name that springs to mind when you think of nineteenth century France. Although he was, at one time, a lot better known and a lot more establishment than any of the Impressionists. He was an architect, most famous for his outrageously decadent building, the Opera in Paris, aka the Opéra Garnier.
The first part of the show is for die-hard Garnier enthusiasts, with letters, photos and memorabilia as well as architectural drawings (but no English translations of the explanations as far as I could tell). The second part is devoted to the Opéra itself and the various aspects of its design and construction. Most interesting are the photographs showing the clearing of 12 000 square meters of land to build the edifice. The various facets of the exhibition remind us just how extremely over-the-top an undertaking the opera house was.
Designed to reflect the glory of Empire, the image is completely at odds with the impression (geddit?) we have of French art in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Opéra was finally finished in 1874, the same year that Monet’s “Impression: soleil levant” was exhibited in the Impressionists’ independent show. They could not be more different.
“Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)” is on at the Grand Palais, through January 24 (open 24 hours from 21 through 24)
“Claude Monet: son musée” is on at the Musée Marmottan through February 20
“Charles Garnier: un architecte pour un Empire” is on at the Ecole des Beaux Arts through February 9
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