Joan of Arc, secure in her vision, protected by God and unafraid of rulers of earthly realms, kneels to the dauphin, recognizing him in his disguise.
His courtiers, with curious and disbelieving faces, peer at this stripling girl, her hair and her doublet cut to unmaidenly lengths. Her cap is in her hand, her head bare before the hats and high headdresses of those whose aid she seeks. Amid the vibrant colors of rich brocades and golden threads, her common soldier's garb stands out in its simplicity. The carpet is strewn with roses, perhaps the only time for Joan.
And yet, as she stretches her arm to the dauphin, to whom her "voices" have led her, you can believe that she has come to save France.
Anyone with sensibilities who has poked about in the hidden reaches of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's permanent collection has been captured by Maurice Boutet de Monvel's six enchanting paintings of the legendary French heroine.
Now joining them are 120 more examples of his work, including the studies and watercolors executed for his "Jeanne d'Arc" picture book and nine other children's books; original artwork for the French children's magazine St. Nicolas; and portraits of children and women.
Boutet de Monvel spent the last 12 years of his life working on the Joan of Arc book, his masterpiece. In 1902, Montana Sen. William A. Clark, a great patron of the Corcoran, commissioned Boutet de Monvel to paint the six large panels from the book's illustrations for his collection, and eventually they formed part of his great gift to the Corcoran. The glittering costumes, the Renaissance setting and the interesting facial expressions tell a story and explain a period of time, as Japanese screens or Persian miniatures do on a smaller scale.
Though he seems to take pains with everything he does, not all of the work of Boutet de Monvel is at such an intense pitch. His good humor, visual puns and satirical looks at life may in fact have done him harm with the academic fuddy-duddies, but those of us who think something can be funny and still a work of art value him all the more for it.
Some of his visual jokes are of the black humor variety so beloved of children everywhere -- an awful event, redeemed by a clever device. A good example is his "Conte Sans Paroles" ("Story Without Words"), a panel of 16 pictures in ink applied with pen and brush, each picture about 9 by 4 inches. His granddaughter Sylvie Boutet de Monvel, who came here for the opening, thinks they were never published. The panels show a child losing his head in a dreadful accident and a great doctor dealing with the calamity with an unlikely operation using a milk cart.
In "Welcome to Heaven," from St. Nicolas, the Christmas holy man attempts to smuggle his housekeeper and her cat into heaven by hiding them under his great robe. At the Pearly Gates (looking suspiciously like a wood fence) St. Pete welcomes them with a half smile and a knowing look.
The drawings from "La Civilite' Puerile et Honne~te," a witty etiquette book Boutet de Monvel wrote as well as illustrated, show that Miss Manners wasn't the first to instruct children in behavior with amusing admonitions. One panel illustrates dreadful children wiping their noses in various unacceptable ways. Another lays down the rules for playing games without getting into a knock-down and drag-out.
The straightforward portraits are delightful and insightful. Evidently Boutet de Monvel valued women for independence as much as for beauty. For example, a graphite study for a painting of Mlle. France, daughter of Anatole France, shows a young girl, hands in pockets, wispy hair escaping control, who looks as if she not only knows her own mind but is capable of giving someone a piece of it.
His style, decidedly his own, stands between art nouveau and art moderne, enabling him to use the exuberance and color of nouveau and the stylized, clean, hard edge of moderne. Boutet de Monvel (1850-1913) was a generation before the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), who is now enjoying a revival (having eclipsed his progeny in a recent three-Wyeth show at the Corcoran), but they both appeal to an audience who did very well, thank you, before television, looking at pictures that managed action without flickering.
Two latter-day artists, America's highly venerated Maurice Sendak, who knows "Where the Wild Things Are," and much-beloved Hilary Knight, who introduced us to "Eloise," came to pay homage to Boutet de Monvel at a private preview Wednesday. And both acknowledged their debt to him. They also spoke of their sympathy for artists who are also illustrators, who sometimes are unjustly penalized for their popularity by the more pompous critics.
Boutet de Monvel, N.C. Wyeth, Knight and Sendak share a love of storytelling through their art. The four are poignant, proficient and sometimes profound artists, whose work speaks directly to the viewer, needing no one to explain what they intend. Their work has rhythm, counterpoint and harmony in a world that too often applauds cacophony.
The Corcoran installation is modest and not well lighted -- the reflected glare on glass makes the art difficult to see. The catalogue, though fascinating, doesn't do justice to the work -- a problem with all art printing, Knight and Sendak say. Even so, it's a show you will want to see several times before it closes Jan. 31. You should bring along not only the babies and children but also the grandparents.
The exhibition was organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, founded by Ann Van Devanter Townsend.