The French pieces at the National Gallery of Art show the progression of art in France during the period of the French Revolution, around the 18th and 19th centuries. It begins with lesser-known 18th-century works and moves on to the impressionism and modernism movements, which include more well-known artists such as Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. The 18th-century paintings from this era were classical and elaborate, containing many colors and details to build a realistic scene. Paintings often depicted the aristocracy in their upscale, and slightly more modern, lifestyles. The century ended with this predominantly classical style that reinforced the ideals of the revolution and contained more detail and order.

In the aftermath of this political upheaval, artists started to use more modern and personal styles to address the issues of the day, which led to the famous impressionist movement in the latter part of the 19th century and eventually the even more modern post-impressionist form. The artistic progression of two centuries of French art and political history can be seen for free in the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art in 13 different rooms.

The Loge (Cassatt)

B9_TheLoge_NickBiggsMary Cassatt was born in America but spent much of her adult life in France. Her style came in the impressionist era as well as the avant-garde movement as Paris became a modern, glamorous city.

“The Loge” shows two young women in a grand theater, which is typical of Cassatt, who liked to focus on the people in the audience rather than the performers. The impressionistic dots create less clarity in the painting than previous French works,but still allow a similar sense of detailed grandeur by showing the curved balconies and chandelier in the background.

This painting contains a striking contrast between grandeur and emotional distance by contrasting the grand imagery of this Parisian theater with the pouts of the two young women. One holds a fancy bouquet of flowers, but it sits in her lap as an apparent afterthought to her somber thoughts. The other retreats behind her intricate white Chinese fan. These young ladies come from wealthy families and display this with their stiff, regal posture and disconnected expressions.

Rather than creating a purely realistic visual, Cassatt uses the impressionist sense of representation to invoke a certain mood through colors and novel techniques.

The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at Tuileries (Jacques-Louis David)

B9_Napoleon_NickBiggsThis work comes from a neoclassic period of upheaval in France that saw the end of a dynasty of the Bourbon family and the rise and fall of Napoleon around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Napoleon in his Study” presents a grand image of the emperor, showing him regally standing straight and ready to rule in his study. However, on closer examination Napoleon’s shoulders are slightly hunched, his hand hides under his vest and his hair is disheveled. Details such as flickering candles and scattered quills reinforce the disorganization of the details. The clock in the background, at 4:13 a.m. reveals the purpose of the image, which is to depict Napoleon in the wee hours of the morning, having drafted the Napoleonic Code all night. Napoleon wears a soldier’s uniform, which is an attribute to his military success.

The clear colors and details of this painting create a regal image that is a stark contrast to the more lighthearted rococo era that occupied much of the 18th century. Other decorative symbols, including a fleur-de-lis, represent Napoleon’s imperial authority through this painting.

The Swing ( Fragonard)

B9_TheSwing_NickBiggsIn “The Swing,” nature masks the intentions of the painting’s subjects. A young man — barely visible behind the two lion statues between which the lady swings — pushes the swing, which gives him a chance to look up her skirt each time she swings into view. The woman carelessly waves a flower petal as her legs emerge from under the billow of her soft pink dress.

Such a scene is classic of the post-Baroque, pre-Enlightenment era of rococo. The painting uses lighter, more graceful colors than the formalness of Baroque works, which the lighthearted scene of young romance in a garden also reflects. At the same time, the Enlightenment brought about an image and higher morality than paintings such as “The Swing” represented.

Young Girl Reading (Fragonard)

B9_GirlReading_NickBriggs“Young Girl Reading’s” intricate dress, pillow and face look very detailed and realistic. However, upon further examination, Fragonard’s bold brushstrokes become apparent in her face, which is more of a melange of off-white and pink colors than a gradual transformation between the two that would look like actual skin, while her hair is a series of curvy strokes. Additionally, he actually scratched the color of her dress into the canvas with the reverse end of his brush, which gives it a sense of detail that does not come from the painting process.

The bright yellow of the dress, saffron of her hair ribbon and lilac of the pillow the girl rests on make the painting bold for its era. Despite the more serious manner of a girl reading in solitude, Fragonard managed to insert elements of controversy through his vigorous strokes and scratching. These elements form the “swordplay of the brush,” which many of Fragonard’s contemporaries knew him for, and which ultimately makes the crafting of the painting more notable than its subject. Such a piece is classic of Fragonard’s bold rococo painting style.

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