Experiencing the French masters anew


Gustave Courbet, "The Black Rocks at Trouville," c. 1865/1866, oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Art)
September 30, 2011

“Boy in a Red Waistcoat,” one of Paul Cezanne’s many masterpieces, is returning to the walls of the National Gallery of Art. And, in a re­arrangement of the 19th-century French galleries, the painting will be hung in a room occupied only by other Cezannes.

The museum is reopening its 14 galleries dedicated to impressionism and post-impression on Jan. 29. The galleries were closed for a two-year renovation. During that time, it took some sturdy sneakers to get a sampling of the National Gallery’s greatest paintings. Some, given to the gallery by Chester and Maud Dale, were displayed until late July. A few were hung in the upper reaches of the East Building. Fifty others were sent on a masterpiece tour to museums in Houston, Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan.

In a few months, the popular masterworks from the 1860s to the early 20th century will be reunited.

“These paintings are a who’s who. Now they will be back to view and re-hung,” said Mary Morton, the gallery’s curator of French painting.

After she arrived in January 2010, Morton assumed the task of rethinking the galleries’ floor plan.


Claude Monet, “Bridge at Argenteuil on a Gray Day,” c. 1876, oil on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

“We wanted to wake up the masterpieces and then pull them to the front of the galleries,” Morton said.

The restoration is part of the National Gallery’s overall master facilities plan, estimated at $150 million, in which, section by section, the museum is replacing skylights, fire safety systems, windows, and exhaust and ventilation systems.

In a studio behind the public rooms of the National Gallery, Morton showed a layout of the re-envisioned galleries, with tiny reproductions of the paintings. Approximately 156 to 158 are returning to the walls.

The paintings will be grouped by theme and subject. “There will be a core wall, grouped around a theme of the cityscapes of Paris,” she explained, fingering the small copy of Auguste Renoir’s “Pont Neuf,” painted in 1872. Some paintings, vivid in colors and poses, will be grouped together. Renoir’s “Odalisque,” from the Dale Collection, will probably be there.

“The colors are sensual. This really will activate the viewers,” Morton said. Van Gogh and Gauguin will face off with each other, she said, and that space will mix in some late Degas works.

Another idea is to group paintings that reflect the intimate world of some of the impressionists’ favorite subjects. “Women, children, all the interiors,” Morton explained. The solitary woman sitting in a cafe with her aperitif in Edouard Manet’s “Plum Brandy” and Claude Monet’s “The Cradle — Camille with the Artist’s Son Jean” follow this pattern. In the reconfiguration, there’s only one new painting: Gustave Courbet’s “The Black Rocks at Trouville.”

The arrangement will hopefully prompt what curators like to call “conversation” between Courbet and Monet, who was inspired by Courbet. “What does this one have to do with this? This is active placement,” Morton said.


Edouard Manet, “The Railway,” c.1873, oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Art)

With such a wealth of art, Morton had to cull down the greatest hits to 25 that will have audio stops. For the first time, many of the galleries will have wall text that lists more than the title, artist and dates, and the donor.

All but the Cezanne gallery. There, Morton doesn’t plan any expanded wall text. “The gallery has great depth in his still life, landscape and figure paintings,” Morton said. “The grouping itself needs no explanation. It is monographic.”

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