The French in Italy
Throughout the seventeenth, Italy and the Eternal City in particular drew French artists who, following the example of François Stella at the end of the 1580s, showed no hesitation in undertaking the journey across the Alps. The most famous example is Nicolas Poussin who spent almost his entire career as a painter in Rome, with the exception of a brief period in Paris (1640-1642), which was very prolific but left him profoundly dissatisfied. The same can be said of his friend Claude Gellée, called Il Lorenese, for whom the Roman countryside was a source of inspiration throughout his life. Although much more sporadic, the art of these draughtsmen was influenced profoundly by the relationships that artists such as Callot and François Perrier had with Italy; the former stayed for a period in Florence at the Medici court, whilst the latter stayed in Rome twice, each time for a couple of years.
The Centre and Outskirts in the Golden Age
Generally speaking, the French artists who were influenced by Caravaggio were not draughtsmen; an exception to this was Simon Vouet, whose style changed after he returned to France for good in 1627 when he undertook his successful career as a decorator and painter of history. Although his work can still be classified as Baroque, it also has the characteristics of elegance and formal research that herald the arrival of Classicism. A purged form of this is to be found in Eustach Le Sueur’s works, an artist of the greatest delicacy, influenced by Raphael; the same can be said of Laurent de La Hyre, with a particularly refined, serene style that earned him the title of “Attic”, in reference to the purity of ancient Greek art. Diverse artistic centres developed in the French province that were characterised by greater freedom and often surprising originality, as can be seen in the inventions of Brébiette, from Orléans, or the Lyon painter Thomas Blanchet. In Avignon, on the other hand, Nicholas Mignard developed a more sober manner, while at the end of the century the fascinating, bold style of Antoine Rivalz and Raymond La Fage from Toulouse was emerging.
The triumph of the classical spirit established itself during the centralised reign of Louis XIV, the artistic production of which tended primarily to celebrate the sovereign’s glory. The creation of the Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1648 made it possible to gradually guide artistic creation accordingly. Until 1690 Charles Le Brun, first painter to the King, was the perfect representative of this current; he worked mainly in Versailles, where he was responsible for most of the decorations. His rival, Pierre Mignard, and his successors Antoine Coypel and Charles de La Fosse, continued his work as decorator but with an increasing emphasis on the triumph of colour over the pure line that, under the Regency, was to result in the rocaille vivacity.
Watteau and rocaille
After the followers of Rubens had prevailed over those of Poussin, and the notion of “colour” had prevailed over “drawing”, the result was a less majestic, more relaxed and poetical art. Despite his untimely demise, with his portrayals of chivalrous parties and the incessant evocations of the progress of love, Antoine Watteau remains the ideal exponent of this tendency. He was followed by François Boucher, who continued in the same direction, enriching it with a mythological iconography with which he was to celebrate, amongst other things, the loves of the gods.
Nevertheless, in this century of impiety and religious criticism, thanks to commissions from the Church there was still a tradition of Christian iconography that is reflected in both the art of Jean Restout and Pierre-Charles Trémolières, the latter who unfortunately died at an early age. In the French province several artistic centres still stand out for their originality, such as Linguadoca with a particular expressive artist such as François Dandré-Bardon.
The reign of Louis XV (who died in 1774) saw the ascent of Neoclassic art, which was influence by a number of factors: writings by Winkelmann and the Count of Caylus, the rediscovery of the ancient with the excavations of Pompeii and Ercolano, but also the new entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, who no longer identified with a profoundly aristocratic style such as Rocco. Realism and genre subjects thus gradually established themselves, parallel to the affirmation of a certain taste for the Nordic painting from the previous century. While Challe or Despez still reflected the widespread influence of Piranesi, artists such as Greuze and Hoin expressed a new interest in psychological analysis and the realism of portraiture, an aspect that is also to be found in Quentin De La Tour and Chardin’s works. Travelling to Italy remained a privilege for many young artists, and a stay at the premises of the French Academy in Palazzo Mancini was a must for Prix de Rome graduates. Charles Natoire was the director of this institution for many years and he encouraged many artists to draw from real life, often with a red pencil, for example Hubert Robert, or with watercolour, such as Houël.
A new gospel crystalised around Jacques-Louis David: the exemplum virtutis (example of physical and moral courage). Being great readers of Plutarch and Tacitus, this was a legacy from the ancients and the young innovators of style, lovers of the cold line and heroic tales, cultivated a new repertoire, fundamentally through the means of their drawings. A long time before the triumph of Oath of the Horatii at the 1785 Salon, David had celebrated the virtue of Hector’s widow, Andromache, Artemesia’s exemplary suicide, and Marco Atilio Regolo’s respect of the word. An exile in Brussels after the Bourbons returned for good in 1815, he devoted himself to portraits that he drew with caustic acidity. His unbelievable success left little room for his rivals, such as Peyron, who continued with the Attic line, or Vincent, a sort of multiform artist whose great skill was never influenced in the least by later stylistic changes.
Many other draughtsmen followed in a similar direction, while Louis-Léopold Boilly, a Realist painter of the contemporary bourgeoisie, or Prud’hon, Correggio’s vaporous heir, established themselves thanks to their own personal style. David obviously portrayed Napoleon’s glory, as did his pupils, including Girodet and Gros.
The Romantics, Landscape painters, and Literary Draughtsmen
It was with Gros that the tension between the Neoclassic and Romantic came to the fore as they were contradictions that were so violent that they led the artist to commit suicide. For his contemporary Géricault, the problem was completely different: the heroes he was depicting were popular and often guilty, and more often than not had already been condemned; their Michelangelo-like calibre collided with the strength of the fate accompanying them. Were they the last of the Classics or the first of the Romantics? One could almost ask the same of Ingres, who regarded himself as an apostle of a classicism that respected form, but whose bold brushwork, combined with a skill that was disconcerting, made him “different”. The human comedy he portrayed with almost five hundred portraits in pencil, with which he proved to be the heir of Clouet and Holbein the Younger, contrasted with moments of bold eccentricity and the primitivism that was to assert itself in his grandes machines in which he reasserts his desire to be regarded first and foremost as a painter of history.
Although always considered “a pure classic”, his great rival Delacroix, who has always been compared to him in art history, was more impulsive; with his affirmation of a continuously renewed imagination, one that Baudelaire celebrated in him as the “queen of faculties”, he embodied the Romantic Movement and drive. Here, seven works by each of these artists are on display together, allowing the viewer to appreciate not only their technical differences, but also the fecundity of their creative genius.
If Delacroix regarded himself as “a literary painter” – once again using Baudelaire’s words – of equal importance are the relationships between the writing and drawing illustrating works of artists such as Daumier or Bresdin, or those of prolific (Victor Hugo) or very rarely (Baudelaire) writer-draughtsmen take part with equal energy; Corot, and a little later Millet and Rousseau stand out as landscape painters, while Carpeaux dominates sculpture.
The modern drawing that laid the ground for the plastic conquests of the twentieth century is not to be found in pure Impressionism, the principle exponents of which (Monet, Sisley, Pissarro) were not outstanding draughtsmen. Instead, it was the fruit of the work of a Manet or Degas who, at the beginning of their career as artists took the great Italian masters of the Renaissance and their ideal figures as their points of reference. It also lies in the continuous affirmation of the role of imagination, which tends to be oneiric and spectacular, for example in Redon or Rodin. With Toulouse-Lautres, and with Seurat and Cézanne, the act of drawing affirms itself as a conqueror: in the former it is of the utmost acidity whilst in the latter, it is of extraordinary technical skill, a sort of “inventor of black”; in Cézanne, on the other hand, it is of amazing boldness, as he tries to make the portrayal of his much-contemplated “small sensation” as similar as possible to his lofty conception of “museum art”, with his search for formal harmony, with its incomparable strength.
Curated by Pierre Rosenberg
Show co-organised by Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse
and with the support of Alliance Française, Venice