By Carter B. Horsley
This exhibition of 114 "School of Paris"
works of art, 105 of which are paintings, collected by the Metropolitan
Museum of Art between 1947 and 1999 - a rather awkward chronological
"set" - is pleasant, but not awesome, an indication
that the museum’s collection in this area needs strengthening.
This is not the definitive School of Paris
show by any stretch. To its great credit, however, the first "wall
text" in the exhibition notes that "works by several
significant artists are lacking, and such omissions should be
(The catalogue notes that there are many School
of Paris works in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. and
Leonore Annenberg, which is on exhibit at the museum six months
a year and not included in this exhibition.)
Indeed, some of the paintings in this show,
especially some by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri Matisse
(1869-1954), are exceeding weak and not worthy of museum exhibition.
One could argue, even, that only a quarter of the works shown
are important. Of course, one of the difficulties in museumology
is how to nurture bequests from collectors and weed them out of
lesser quality works, a process overflowing with controversy and
difficulties. Invariably, museums will accept gifts of significant
collections that contain some masterpieces as well as a few non-masterpieces.
Despite such nitpicking, however, there are
some great paintings in this exhibition.
This exhibition highlights notable bequests
from Adelaide Milton de Groot (1967), Scofield Thayer (1982),
Florene M. Schoenborn (1995) and Jacques and Natasha Gelman (1998),
and "distinguished gifts" from the Alfred Stieglitz
Collection (1949) and the Mr. And Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection
The museum’s press release for the exhibition
quotes Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s director, as
stating that "This collection has grown dramatically during
the last two decades alone, as we have had the good fortune to
gratefully accept a number of extraordinarily generous gifts and
bequests." The release also quoted William S. Lieberman,
the museum’s, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Chairman of the
Modern Art Department and curator of the exhibition, as stating
that "this is the first such survey of masterworks from our
collection, and it will be revelatory for our visitors. Not only
will it recall a period and place of great vitality but it will
also reveal unexpected relationships between the artists who so
profounded shaped the art of this century."
In recent decades, of course, the museum has
made something of a mockery of its "Name Game" with
various recent donors being giving greater prominence than many
of the museum’s greatest early benefactors, especially J.
P. Morgan, Benjamin Altman, Jules Bache and the Havemeyer family,
whose munificent gifts make the later ones, with rare exceptions
such as Robert Lehman and the Annenbergs, seem very puny indeed.
The "School of Paris," of course,
does not refer to a specific school or group of French painters.
Originally, the French used the phrase to refer to foreigner artists
who lived and worked in France before and during World War I,
but this exhibition extends the definition to include artists,
both foreign and native, who lived and worked in Paris in the
first half of the 20th Century. "Although most of the painters
of the polyglot School of Paris knew each other, they never exhibited
together as a group. Some were artistic partners; some were mentors;
others followed. Paris was their home, but they shared no single
style. Their nationalities were also diverse: [Jules] Pascin [1885-1930]
was Bulgarian; [Frantisek] Kupka [1871-1957] was Czech; [Giorgio]
de Chirico [1888-1978], [Amedeo] Modigliani [1884-1920], and [Gino]
Severini [1883-1966] were Italian; [Jacques] Lipchitz [1891-1973]
and [Chaim] Soutine [1893-1943] were Lithuanian; [Diego] Rivera
[1886-1957] was Mexican; [Marc] Chagall 1887-1985], [Natalia]
Gontcharova [1881-1962], and [Pavel] Tchelitchew [1898-1957] were
Russian; [Juan] Gris [1887-1927], [Joan] Miró [1893-1983]
and [Pablo] Picasso [1881-1973] were Spanish; and [Alberto] Giacometti
[1901-1966] and [Félix] Valloton [1865-1925] were Swiss,"
the wall text noted.
Needless to say, George Braques, (1882-1963),
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and André
Derain (1880-1954), who figure prominently in this show, were
French as was Maurice Denis (1870-1943), the chief theorist for
the Nabis, who were originally influenced by the use of color
and flat rhythmic patterns by Paul Gauguin and then by the mystical
colorations of Odile Redon.
One of the exhibition’s more interesting
surprises is Denis’s "Springtime," a large study.
Circa 1897, in blues, white, green, pinks and grays, Gift of David
Allen Devrishian, 1999, that is reminiscent in its composition,
but not coloration, of the work of Puvis de Chavannes, one of
the artists missing in this survey whose flat, neoclassical works
were an important though not terribly inspiring prelude to abstraction.
Denis’s Springtime is a quite lyrical and beautiful work.
Bonnard and Vuillard were perhaps the most
famous of the Nabis, but Bonnard suffers here greatly in comparison
with Vuillard who is represented with three marvelous works, the
largest of which is a panoramic view of a Paris neighborhood that
is a "promised" gift to the museum. In all the excitement
over Fauvism, Cubism, and all subsequent "isms," Vuillard
has been too often overlooked for his fantastic painterly qualities
that surely make him one of the greatest masters of all time.
While this exhibition is relatively minor, it is a must exhibition
merely because of the first room that shows this large Vuillard
next to a smaller but still large Vuillard, both across the room
from an exquisite small Vuillard. (Sadly, the same room shows
three small and very unexciting Bonnards and one good large Bonnard.)
Vuillard is a painter of texture and subtle
coloration. The large Parisian scene, which seems to have a super-wide-angle-lens
distortion, is dryly painted and has a quite muted palette of
light browns, yellows, white and greens, a palette he often employed
in his larger works. The painting ("Place Vintimille, Paris,"
1916, distemper on canvas, 64 by 90 inches, promised gift of anonyomous
donor) is very fine and only misses the rustling of drapery of
the opened French windows and the smell of coffee and croissants
for total "transportation."
The other large Vuillard ("Morning in
the Garden at Vaucresson," 1923-1937, distemper on canvas,
59 ½ by 43 5/8 inches, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection,
Wolfe Fund, 1952) is a startling contrast as its deeply saturated
and rich colors and vibrant composition tend to conjure Monet
rather than Vuillard and yet the stamp of Vuillard’s brushwork
is very clear. This is a dazzling work.
The small Vuillard ("Luncheon," 1901,
oil on cardboard, 8 ¾ by 17 inches, bequest of Mary Cushing
Fosburgh, 1978) is typical of what one normally expects: bravura
brushwork, vivid colors and superb composition.
The same gallery has a 1920 Water Lily painting
by Monet that is a good example of this popular genre.
The next gallery has several Picasso’s
including his portrait of Gertrude Stein, oil on canvas, 39 3/8
by 32 inches, that was finished in early autumn of 1906 and given
by the famous salon hostess to the museum in 1946. Stein, the
wall text states, also owned Picasso’s small self-portrait,
1906, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 10 ½ by 7 ¾
inches, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998, in the same
gallery. When Picasso finished his portrait of Stein in 1906,
he was 24 and she was 32. "Several years later Miss Stein
remembered, ‘Picasso sat very tight and very close to his
canvases and on a very small palette, which was of a uniform brown
gray color, mixed with some more brown gray and the painting began.
This was the first of some eighty or ninety sittings. All of a
sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. ‘I can’t
see you anymore when I look,’ he said irritably. And so the
picture was left like that.’ After a working vacation in
Spain, Picasso returned to Paris. Without seeing Stein again he
completed her portrait. The head differs in style from the body
and hands; and the masklike face reflects Picasso’s recent
study of African sculpture. When someone commented that Stein
did not resemble her portrait, Picasso replied, ‘She will.’"
The small self-portrait head of Picasso is
simple but very strong. The virtually identical head sits atop
a full-length body in a larger painting done in the same year
by the same artist in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There are more than 20 Picassos in this exhibition.
Other good ones are the "Harlequin," a 1901 oil on canvas,
32 5/8 by 24 1/8 inches, that is very luscious and decorative
and was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb in 1960; "The
Actor," a 1904-5 oil on canvas, 76 3/8 by 44 1/8 inches,
a pleasantly pink and enigmatic but powerful gift of Thelma Chrysler
Foy in 1952; four superb Picassos from the Mr. and Mrs. Klaus
G. Perls Collection, 1997: the excellent "Nude in an Armchair,"
1909-10, oil on canvas, 32 by 25 ¾ inches, the "Still
Life with a Pipe Rack, 1911, oil on canvas, 20 by 50 3/8 inches,
the unusual "Harlequin," 1927, oil on canvas, 32 by
25 5/8 inches, and the colorful "The Dreamer," a 1932
oil on canvas, 39 7/8 by 36 ¾ inches; and "Girl Reading
at a Table," a pleasant 1934 oil and enamel on canvas, 63
7/8 by 51 3/8 inches, bequenest of Florene M. Schoenborn in honor
of William S. Lieberman, 1995.
Picasso is almost is shown up in this exhibition
by both André Derain and Georges Braque.
Derain, one of the great Fauves, is represented
by three magnificent paintings: "Lucien Gilbert," a
1906 portrait, shown at the top of this article, oil on canvas,
32 by 23 ¾ inches, that was a gift of Joyce Blaffer von
Bothmer in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Blaffer, 1975; "Fishing
Boats, Collioure," a 1905 oil on canvas, 31 7/8 by 29 ½
inches, gift of Raymonde Paul, in memory of her brother, C. Michael
Paul, and purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1982; and "The
Houses of Parliament Seen at Night," a 1906 oil on canvas,
40 ½ inches by 47 ¾ inches, Robert Lehman Collection,
1975. The first is intense and quite able to be hung beside any
Van Gogh! The second is a recognizable pier scene with pyrotechnical
dynamics. The third is a very bold work in its brushwork and palette.
Braques is represented by three great works
that were part of the bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995:
"Woman Seated at an Easel," a 1936 oil with sand on
canvas, 51 ½ by 63 7/8 inches, "The Studio,"
a 1949 oil on canvas, 51 ½ by 29 1/8 inches, and "Guitar
and Still Life on a Mantelpiece," a 1921 oil with sand on
canvas, 51 3/8 by 29 3/8 inches.
A particularly feliticious juxtaposition in
the galleries is the pairing of "Vertical and Diagonal Planes,"
by Kupka, circa 1913-4, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 by 19 ¾ inches,
shown above, a great geometric study rich in blues and oranges
and blacks, gift of the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., 1971,
with "Star Dancer with Her Dance School," a 1913 watercolor
on paper, shown below, 22 by 30 inches, by Francis Picabia (1879-1953),
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.
Among the other highlights of the show are
the following: "The Repast of a Lion," by Henri Rousseau
(1944-1910), a circa 1907 oil on canvas, 44 ¾ by 63 inches,
Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951, a major work by this primitive
artist; "Dancer-Airplane Propeller-Sea, a 1915 oil on canvas,
29 5/8 by 30 ¾ inches, by Gino Severini, Alfred Stieglitz
Collection, 1949, shown below; "Table by a Window,"
a 1917 oil on canvas by Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), 32 by 25 5/8
inches, purchase, the M. L. Annenberg Foundation, Joseph H. Hazen
Foundation Inc., and Joseph H. Hazen Gifts, 1959; "The Terrace
at Vernonnet," a 1939 oil on canvas by Pierre Bonnard, 58
¼ by 76 ¾ inches, gift of Mrs. Frank Jay Gould,
1968; "Artillery," a 1911 oil on canvas by Roger de
la Fresnaye, 51 ¼ by 62 ¾ inches, Gift of Florene
M. Schoenborn, 1991, a simple but very strong work by this modern
master; "The Dining Table," a 1912 oil on canvas by
Jacques Villon (1875-1963), 25 ¾ by 32 inches, Purchase,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Justin K. Thannhauser, by exchange, 1983,
a jewel-like fantasy still life of great depth and vigor; and
"Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance II’,"
a 1912 oil on canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), bequest of
Scofield Thayer, 1982, a work that was exhibited in the famous
Armory Show in New York in 1913; "Dutch Interior," a
1928 oil on canvas by Joan Miro, 51 1/8 by 38 1/8 inches, Bequest
of Florene M. Schoenborn 1995, a good example of this artist’s
fluid imagination; and "Three Judges," an oil on canvas,
circa 1938, by Georges Roualt (1871-1958), 27 ¼ by 21 ½
inches, a strong, jewel-like work by this neglected modern master,
The Frederick and Helen Serger Collection, Bequest of Helen Serger,
in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1989.
The exhibition also includes some nice Modiglianis
and Legers, an interesting Cubist still life by Diego Rivera (1886-1957),
a couple of fine Gris, a good Miro and an interesting Jean Hélion
The exhibition is accompanied by a 128-page
softcover catalogue, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., that
has 104 good color illustrations and is priced at only $19.95.
The exhibition is sponsored by Aetna and the museum has scheduled
an interesting variety of lectures, gallery talks and films in
conjunction with it.
Click here to order the catalogue from amazon.com