The catalogue, well written, informative and clearly intended to lay out French works on paper in a clear comprehensive way, wants to be associated with a different show, with material borrowed from other galleries and museums, with more heart-stopping works and fewer orphans and oddities.
But critics, to be honest, are also prone to envy, and at least some of the resentment against the collector show has to do with the privileged relation between the institution and the wealthy. In the end, Dyke’s special access may redound to the advantage of the National Gallery and thus to the advantage of the American people, but it feels wrong, underscoring the art world’s genetic propensity to aristocracy and exclusivity rather than egalitarianism and openness.
Perhaps it feels even more wrong when it comes to works on paper from this particular era, when artists started making drawings and watercolors for the consumer without deep pockets. Seeing them awakens a vestigial desire to own them, to relate to them as the 19th-century French public did. Unlike an exhibition of Renaissance painting or sculpture, the work here still feels domestic and accessible to our acquisitive nature.
And so you emerge sensing not just the wealth and range of visual thinking during one of art history’s most splendid eras, but the contradictions of how art gets sorted and valorized over time. Museums are in the business of constantly refining old snapshots of consumer taste, confirming or correcting the decisions made by the art market. Most of us, unable to participate in the art market, turn that process over to professionals, academics and curators. But a very few people are able to relate to art and museum culture as consumers, pursuing their own whims and passions, driving rather than following settled taste, and in the process reordering old ideas.
Dyke is one of those people, a free agent of taste whose decisions still have an impact on the definition of what good art is, more than a century after ordinary people were able to play that game in relationship to this work. His priorities are not necessarily mainstream priorities, and for that one naturally feels both thankful and a little twinge of resentment.
Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac
on view at the National Gallery of Art
from Jan. 27 to May 26. For more information visit www.nga.gov.