The First Museum of Art
Initially housed in the west wing of the Palais du Luxembourg (built in 1615 by Queen Marie de Medici, Louis XIII’s mother) the Musée du Luxembourg was the first French museum to open to the public in 1750, almost half a century before the Musée du Louvre. The works exhibited here, about one hundred Old Masters paintings from the royal collection would in time be transferred to form the nucleus of the Louvre.
The Luxembourg was then designated as a museum of contemporary arts, and in 1886 settled into its current building. Much of the works first shown here from 1818 to 1937 ultimately found their way to the Musée National d’Art Moderne and the Musée d’Orsay. Then, in recent decades the space has become one of Paris’ premier temporary exhibit galleries. Twice yearly, it features a thematic exhibition of major works on loans from French and foreign museums, showcasing the evolution of European art in its historical context .
The Golden Age of English Painting
Through a comprehensive series of masterpieces on loan from the Tate Britain museum, the current exhibit pays tribute to the Golden Age of English Painting, which flourished through the long reign of Charles III (from 1760 to 1820). This was a decisive period of societal transformation in Great Britain, which shaped its artistic and cultural life. While some artists could still rely on the few royal commissions, most were now able to cater not only to the elite aristocracy but also to an emerging consumer society of new players in commerce and industry. This demand set artists free to express themselves in a diversity of styles, as they adapted their production to this evolving market.
While still referring to the masters of the past and the great schools of painting that had made their mark throughout continental Europe, this new generation of painters, led by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), fostered the emergence of a distinctive British identity.
A Reynolds – Gainsborough Face-off
From the 1760s Reynolds and Gainsborough were acknowledged leaders in the field of portraiture. Both received royal commissions and were “painters to the king”. In 1768, both became founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts, with Reynolds becoming its first president. Critics of the time regularly set them in opposition, and they certainly played on this by producing works inviting comparison. Reynolds’ works became known for their flattering scholarly references, while Gainsborough breathed life into his elegant portraits. Both, however, shared the same inspiration from Anthony Van Dyck, the Flemish Baroque artist who had made his career at the British court in the 17th century.
All these formative points are brilliantly illustrated in the first part of the exhibition with an extensive face-off between the two masters.
From the Old to the New Generation
While Reynolds and Gainsborough redefined British art, they also opened the door to a new generation of talents. Their influence is illustrated in a selection of major portraits by their competitors/followers, such as John Hopper, William Beechey, Thomas Lawrence, Francis Cotes and George Romney.
Unlike most of the other great portraitists who wooed the royal family and attended the Royal Academy, Romney built his reputation on his independence. He soon became en vogue in London, especially among the thriving new clientele of entrepreneurs and merchants created by the booming economic and urban development of the time. Overall, the 1760s and 70s were creative years for all these painters, represented in this exhibition by portraits that also distinguish themselves by their varieties.
This new, more individualist consumer society favored a degree of personalization that couldn’t be achieved in the formal portraiture tradition of previous centuries. The popularity of conversation pieces ensued, group portraits close to the genre painting, generally small, that had been until now the trademark of Flemish art (think Johannes Vermeer , Gerard ter Borch et al.). Here, the subjects were most often portrayed as a family staged in an informal fashion, an evolution of the portrait that reflected the increased importance given to private space and the comfort of domestic life.
A Newfound Appreciation of Nature
Landscape also played a central role in the emergence of the English school of painting. It enabled artists to express themselves more freely than in portraits, where the requirements of the patron were more restrictive. With the exception of great classical landscapes depicting abstract ideals and historic events, landscape painting had been relegated to the bottom of the academic hierarchy of genres. While there was already an established niche market for it, long dominated by Flemish artists, the emerging consumer society reinforced the demand for these smaller paintings representing with naturalism simple subject, designed primarily to please the eye.
The period coincided with the wars, first against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, which curtailed opportunities for travel on the continent. With access to the treasures of classical art now limited, a whole generation of painters began crisscrossing the British countryside in search of subjects. Scenes of rural life, inspired by the national landscape, took on an unprecedented importance and proved to be an opportunity to profoundly reconsider national identity.
The Rise of Watercolor Painting
At the time, watercolor was still being used in a traditional way, merely to bring color to drawings. The last part of the exhibition showcases the likes of Francis Towne, John Martin and J.M.W. Turner as they discovered new ways to use the medium as a wash. By giving the color a figurative power of its own, independently of lines, they introduced a new freedom of expression in their work. Watercolor thus played an important role in the growing popularity of landscape painting in England. Small in size, relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire, watercolors now catered to the flourishing bourgeois art market.
In parallel to this last section, a limited selection of late works documents the presence of Great Britain in India and the Caribbean, a reminder that the country’s artistic and cultural progress was essentially founded by the commercial exploitation on overseas territories.
Overall, this retrospective beautifully showcases the evolution of a vital period in English art. It can be seen until February 16, 2020.
Good to Know
- Visiting — The Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris, France, is open daily from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm with night opening until 10:00 pm on Monday. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 13 62 00.
- Getting there —There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Saint Sulpice (Line 4) or bus stop Luxembourg (lines 58, 84 and 89).
- Future Expositions — Later in 2020, the museum is scheduled to stage two very different exhibitions: “Man Ray and Fashion,” from April 9th to July 26th, and “Influential Women Painters (1780-1830),” from September 30, 2020 to January 24, 2021.