Friday, November 21, 2014

Norton Simon Museum and Musée d’Orsay Announce an Exchange of Masterpieces

The Norton Simon Museum and the Musée d’Orsay are pleased to announce an exchange of six paintings (three from each museum) in the spring of 2015 (March 27 – June 22, 2015), with simultaneous exhibitions in Pasadena and Paris. The exhibition held at the Simon will comprise Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871 (also known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), and Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, c. 1892–96. The exhibition at the Orsay will comprise Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867–68, Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888, and Édouard Vuillard’s First Fruits, 1899.

Tête-à-Tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay
March 27 – June 22, 2015

This spring, the Norton Simon Museum presents an installation of three paintings from the Musée d’Orsay’s renowned collection of Impressionist art. Organized by Chief Curator Carol Togneri with Associate Curator Emily Beeny, the installation features Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871 (also known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), and Paul Cézanne’s Card Players, 1892–96. The Orsay paintings will hang together in the Norton Simon Museum’s 19th-century wing, alongside paintings from the Simon collection by Manet, Cézanne and their peers.

Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871

It is perhaps the single most recognizable image in the history of American painting: the spare interior of an artist’s studio, a gray wall, a Japanese curtain, an aging subject soberly dressed and seated in profile. Whistler’s portrait of his mother, painted in the fall of 1871, marks the high point of his career. ―It is rare,‖ wrote Whistler’s friend, the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, ―that one can judge an artist by a single work.‖ Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, is that single work. Endlessly reproduced, imitated and parodied, the

picture nonetheless resists any fixed interpretation. 

Given the painting’s iconic status in American culture, the fact that Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 resides not in the United States but in France may come as a surprise. Acquired by the French state in 1891 after a vigorous campaign by admirers including the painter Claude Monet and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Arrangement hung first at the Louvre, and then moved to the Musée d’Orsay when it opened in 1986.

Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868

Like Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Manet’s portrait of Zola depicts a sitter intimately known to the artist. But while Whistler’s painting remains an ―arrangement‖ somewhat remote in its treatment of its subject, Manet’s portrait of Zola is literally overflowing with tokens of friendship. Zola was still making a name for himself as a journalist in 1866 when he published a glowing newspaper article on Manet. In his article, Zola praised the frank modernity of Manet’s style, which had made the painter a divisive figure—and, indeed, a frequent object of ridicule—on the Paris art scene. 

One year later, when jury members for the Paris World’s Fair deemed Manet’s submissions too radical, the painter erected a pavilion on the edge of the fairgrounds where visitors could judge his work for themselves. His co-conspirator in this guerilla exhibition was none other than Zola, who re-published his article as a booklet titled Une nouvelle manière en peinture (A New Manner in Painting) on the occasion. 

To show his gratitude, Manet painted the writer’s portrait in January 1868. Depicting Zola as a connoisseur and scholar, Manet surrounded him with both art (a Japanese print, an engraving after Velázquez and an etching of Manet’s own Olympia) and books (including, of course, Zola’s own Une nouvelle manière en peinture).

Cézanne’s The Card Players, c. 1892–96

Of the whole Impressionist group, Cézanne was the least understood by his contemporaries. Stung by the unusually harsh criticism that greeted his work at the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Cézanne effectively withdrew from public exhibition for nearly 20 years, reemerging in a series of shows mounted by the progressive dealer Ambroise Vollard, when Cézanne came to be appreciated at last as the father of modern art. After his withdrawal from the public eye, Cézanne began to spend more time in the South of France, on his family’s property outside of Aix. There he focused on local landscapes, kitchen still lifes and a narrow cast of domestic models. The Card Players, painted between about 1892 and 1896, belongs to this last category, representing two workers seated at a table playing cards. The deceptive simplicity of the scene, the pyramidal composition and the network of short, hatch-like brushstrokes are all characteristics of Cézanne’s mature style. The painting is the first of three versions of the same composition that Cézanne made in the early 1890s (the others belong to the Courtauld Institute in London and the Royal Family of Qatar). Cézanne’s sometimes agonized perfectionism drove him back to the same themes again and again, struggling to understand and convey not only what he saw but how he saw it.

The Musée D’Orsay Exhibition

Simultaneous to the installation at the Norton Simon Museum, the Musée D’Orsay will exhibit three 19th-century masterpieces from the Simon collection: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867–68, Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888, and Édouard Vuillard’s First Fruits, 1899. While these three works were all created in France, none of them has been exhibited there since being purchased by Norton Simon in the 1960s and ’70s. The installation will present the paintings in three different galleries, hung alongside works by each artist.

Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867–68

Renoir’s picture plants us in the heart of Paris, standing on the Left Bank of the Seine, looking upstream towards the wrought-iron Pont des Arts on a sunny afternoon. A ferry pulls up to the quayside, which is crowded with commuters and idlers from all walks of life seated quietly on the riverbank: leisured ladies in bright dresses and smartly dressed dandies, scrappy street urchins and imperial soldiers, romping dogs and a blue-smocked working man. Up the ramp at right, second-hand booksellers do a brisk trade in the shadow of the Institut de France, a gracious 17th-century building whose dome surveys the bustle below. The picture’s crisp shadows and liberally applied black are not what we think of first when we think of Renoir: such features may surprise viewers better acquainted with the feathery touch and opalescent palette of his later Impressionist work. This scene dates to the very beginning of Renoir’s career, when the artist and his young friend Claude Monet set out to document the city they loved in a series of brisk urban landscapes, filled with all the verve of the modern metropolis.

Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888

In February 1888, after two years in Paris, Van Gogh struck out for the South of France, in search of ―blue tones and gay colors, as well as relief from the low spirits and ill health that had afflicted him in the French art capital. Van Gogh settled in Arles, a small town whose surrounding countryside reminded him of the vividly colored Japanese prints he so admired. It was in Arles that he turned with new dedication to portraiture and forged his unmistakable style, characterized by intense, almost hallucinatory color applied with expressive daring. Painted in the vivid tones of a Japanese print and capturing the weathered features of Patience Escalier, a local gardener, this portrait marks the flowering of the artist’s ambitions and captures what Van Gogh described as the ―sun-steeped, sunburnt quality, tanned and air-swept‖ of both the old man’s face and his vision in Arles.

Vuillard’s First Fruits, 1899

At over 14 feet across, First Fruits is the largest canvas Vuillard ever painted and arguably the crowning achievement of his career. It is one of a pair commissioned in 1899 by the banker Adam Natanson to decorate the library of his Parisian townhouse. The picture opens a broad prospect of woods and fields receding in two directions: along a footpath to a distant cluster of houses at left, and down a cart track towards a blue-kerchiefed woman at right. A child facing the landscape in the left foreground serves as a stand-in for the observer. This landscape was likely sketched from the window of a rented villa in the Paris suburb of L’Etang-la-Ville, where Vuillard spent the summer of 1899 with his sister, her husband and their young daughter, a great favorite with her uncle, who may have inspired the sturdy little figure in the foreground. Despite its grand dimensions, this is an intimate scene, more observed than invented, drawing on the ordinary pleasures of a family holiday.