From Fragonard to David. Drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris

De l’alcôve aux barricades

from 15 October 2016 to 8 January 2017

Renowned for its precious drawings collection, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris collaborates with the Fondation Custodia in the context of its Bicentennial celebration, presenting this autumn at 121 rue de Lille one of the most glorious components of its collections. With 145 drawings, the exhibition From Alcove to Barricades presents an ambitious historical survey of art in the second half of the 18th century.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Head of a plague victim, 1780
Pen and black ink over a sketch in black chalk. – 213 × 152 mm
© Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / prise de vue Thierry Ollivier

The selected works cast light on a period of historical as well as artistic turmoil. From the last decades of the reign of Louis XV (1715–1774) to the close of the revolutionary period (1789–1799), we observe the transition from a monarchy to the Republic: a world that shifts from the space of the court occupied by the nobility to that of the city where the notion of citizenship prevails. Following suit, the arts pass through multiple transformations. This process was long considered a clear break between two opposing styles: rocaille (or rococo) – defined at the time as a feminine style owing to its arabesques, whims and at times extravagance – and neoclassicism, a masculine style whose noble simplicity is inspired by the Antique.

Arranged according to seven thematic chapters – academic training, Roman sojourn, genre scenes, history painting, landscape in France, architectural drawing, and decorative arts – the exhibition reveals a more complex situation.

The great number of masterpieces assembled here for the first time evoke this diversity of styles and approaches. They also enable us to follow the careers of the artists who played a role in these developments. We discover them during their training at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in their large-format nude studies after live models and drawings done for the competition for a Tête d’expression (a face depicting an emotion). A number of awards established in the second half of the 18th century, aimed at inspiring emulation among the Academy’s pupils in order to regenerate the arts, offered young artists opportunities to gain recognition.

Pierre Ranson (1736-1786)
Chinese-style apartment décor
Pen and brown ink, grey wash, watercolour and gouache. – 366 × 532 mm 
© Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / prise de vue Thierry Ollivier

We then follow these draughtsmen to Palazzo Mancini, the seat of the Académie de France in Rome, where they were pensionnaires. Whether copies of ancient and modern masters or views of classical ruins, gardens and recently discovered sites, the Beaux-Arts sheets reveal the motifs that impressed French artists during their stay in Italy.

Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855)
Academy Figure. Man Seated, Resting on his Left Arm, 1789
Black chalk with stumping and white chalk heightenings on brown paper. – 468 × 607 mm
© Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / prise de vue Thierry Ollivier

On their return to France we see these artists obtain official recognition through important State commissions and trying to satisfy the changing taste of connoisseurs. Employing the strategies of history painting – expressive intensity, narrative clarity and theatrical layout – Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) renews the genre scene, evoking everyday dramas in moralising tones. His art, admired by the public of the Salon and Denis Diderot, is illustrated in the exhibition by a number of drawings.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)
The Lovers Surprised
Pen and black ink, grey wash. – 240 × 280 mm
© Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / prise de vue Thierry Ollivier

Ranging from the scenes à la grecque by Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809) to the large neoclassical compositions by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) that inspired an entire generation of painters, the drawings shown in the next section allow us to follow the evolution of history painting as it gradually leaves behind amorous and sensual mythological subjects to explore heroic scenes drawn from ancient history. Indeed, since the mid-18th century rocaille art was highly criticised by scholars, such as the German art historian Winckelmann, and members of the artistic community. The Academy sought to resume ties with the Grand Genre by proposing Antiquity as the model to follow, as it had been in Poussin’s day.

Whether impressive designs – sometimes several metres long – sketched for the competitions organised by the Académie royale d’architecture, or inventions of imaginary buildings in the manner of Piranesi’s Capricci, most of the works that introduce the sixth chapter of the exhibition are sheer graphic elaborations. They attest to the autonomy of architectural drawing in the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of a new form of urban planning around public buildings that offered citizens a richer social and cultural life.

Charles-François de La Traverse (1726/1730-1787)
Rocky landscape, 1773
Gouache. – 374 × 259 mm 
© Collection des Beaux-Arts de Paris / prise de vue Thierry Ollivier

In the exhibition’s final section, devoted to the decorative arts, many drawings are preparatory for engravings forming collections of models, a flourishing genre at the time, while others were used directly to make furniture or ornaments. Through these works we can measure the influence of classical art in the evolution of the repertory of decorative motifs. Although characterised by a return to the straight line and a certain restraint, neoclassicism remained open to the lasting taste for the pleasing and the exotic, the legacy of the rocaille style.

From academic exercises to large-format preparatory studies for paintings, sculpture, furniture and architecture, these drawings thus encompass all the arts. They place us at the heart of the artistic practices and creative processes prevalent in a society undergoing profound transformations.



De l’alcôve aux barricades. De Fragonard à David. Dessins de l’École des Beaux-Arts
Emmanuelle Brugerolles (ed.)
Beaux-Arts de Paris éditions, 2016
400 pp, colour ill., 31,5 × 23 cm, hardcover
ISBN 978 2 84056 490 4
Price: 39,00 €

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