In several rooms, ideas prevalent in France are more important than actual French pedigree. A room of landscape painting, representing the powerful conviction among artists from the Barbizon school through the post-impressionists that painting out of doors was essential to seeing and representing the world in immediate and honest fashion, features works by the Americans Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole (whose study for Catskill Creek has been brought out of storage). Mary Cassat, an American who worked most of her life in France, is well represented, and the juxtaposition of her “The Boating Party” from 1893-94 with Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 “Skiffs” is one of the dramatic, wall-size exclamation points in the new hang (it flatters the Caillebotte while unmasking the artist’s shortcomings).
The German Caspar David Friedrich’s “Northern Landscape — Spring,” the only Friedrich painting in the gallery’s collection and only one of four in public U.S. collections, is also included among French landscapes.
(Courtesy National Gallery of Art) - Claude Monet French (1840 - 1926), ‘Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight,’ 1894, oil on canvas
(Courtesy National Gallery of Art) - Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), ‘Boy in a Red Waistcoat,’ 1888–1890, oil on canvas.
This welcome ecumenical approach to the usual categories and chronological divisions is likely to be the most salient feature that future art historians will note about the French galleries. The neat taxonomies of art history, and the dominant narratives of earlier generations, almost always break down, remaining as echoes or traces as new curators and scholars remake the old. Ever so gingerly, Morton has introduced small thematic explanations for several rooms: One is devoted to “Exoticism,” another to “A Literary Approach” and yet another to “Bohemian Paris,” blurring some of the “isms” and standard family trees that are old shorthand for understanding the 19th century. Although the use of text to explain groupings of art is standard in most museums and common at temporary exhibitions at the National Gallery, its use in the permanent collection (with the exception of handout material) is rare enough to be a novelty.
The experiment works. The texts are minimal but useful pointers to the thematic groupings, and they help make sense of the subtle architectural thinking behind the display. The layout of these rooms requires divisions to be made, and the new hang cleverly allows some small rooms to tightly group works such as Monet’s 1894 Rouen Cathedral series and his 1903 Houses of Parliament, while using larger rooms to make looser, more associative connections. And so some rooms feel tight and focused while others are expansive and freewheeling, which yields a pleasant sense of tension and release.
Many of these works didn’t disappear while the galleries were closed. Some were on display in the ground-level galleries as part of the temporary “Chester Dale Collection” exhibition. Others went on tour. Supplementing the works already familiar from the old French galleries are new pieces brought over from the “Small French Paintings” exhibition in the East Building, and some, including a wonderfully lurid red-sky painting by Courbet, the 1865-66 “Black Rocks at Trouville,” are recent acquisitions and on display for the first time. More than a dozen works have been freshly cleaned, as well.
Having them all together again, complemented by new material and well presented, makes everything feel fresh. The capital of the 19th century wasn’t just a city, or an era, but a force of human endeavor, with a dramatic, splashy side and a taste for special effects. These artists hid so much, lied about so many things, swept so much misery under the rug. But they fed on and feed us with delight, still.