Nineteenth-century French artists knew that urban blight and soothing scenery were interestingly juxtaposed. Greenery in Paris (the Tuileries and Bois de Boulogne) and attractions farther afield (Mount Blanc, Avignon) are contrasted with the visual rudeness of the inner city in "Visions of City and Country," opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art's East Building. Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Manet, Jean Francois Millet and Edouard Vuillard are among those whose works roamed between the two locales.
The 146 prints and photographs are grouped in three breezy sections. "The Exploration of France" offers a tour of chateaus, palaces and scenery in the Pyrenees. An anonymous hand-colored woodcut broadside from 1823 takes a swipe at "Attacks on Diligences and Armed Robberies on the Main Roads." Even there, stagecoaches weren't safe.
The second section, "The Urban Maelstrom and the Pastoral Oasis," plays crime against fresh air. Urban violence circa 1855 is depicted in Gustave Dor,e's print of "The Rue de la Vieille Lanterne," a classic bad neighborhood where a poet hanged himself. Slaughterhouses, cesspits and quarries downtown made for jarring hand-colored lithographs. On the other hand, Millet's "The Gleaners," in its early form as an etching, shows the country women bending gracefully toward the ground, not so grim and downtrodden as heroic.
The final grouping, "The Marriage of the City and Country," documents in photographs and prints the public parks, country houses, casinos and beaches used for weekend getaways. Posters advertising tourist resorts with mineral springs are included, with lithographs documenting tree-lined avenues and landscaped parks, thanks to Napoleon III's urban planning. In most of the final section's works, it's impossible to distinguish city from country. To landscape artists, anyway, France had become one big park.
VISIONS OF CITY AND COUNTRY -- At the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Sunday through December 5.