Louis Rolland Trinquesse. "An Interior with a Lady, her Maid, and a Gentleman," 1776, oil on canvas. (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Among the legendary excesses of America’s Gilded Age was a costume ball given in 1883, by Alva Vanderbilt, who hoped an ostentatious display of hospitality would help her family nudge its way into the upper reaches of New York’s social elite. The party was said to cost (in today’s currency) almost $6 million, but the price tag was no doubt worth it. Who, today, remembers that the Vanderbilts were once grubby parvenus?

In her catalogue essay for the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, “America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting,” curator Yuriko Jackall notes the decidedly French theme of the evening: “ no fewer than eighteen men, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, attended as Louis XVI to pronounce the party French and fashionable.” It seems vulgar and infantile for the wealthy to ape the fashions and manners not just of France, but of pre-revolutionary France of the ancien regime, a culture grounded on exploitation and inequality. And the art amassed by this social world, a cultural milieu obsessed with figures like Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour, might seem doubly tainted: as a product of the original barbarism that made it possible in the 18th century, and as fetish object for subsequent generations of wealthy parasites.

But this exhibition muddies the moral waters when it comes to the art of France, taste and American cultural aspiration. First, it reminds viewers that there wasn’t just one France in the 18th century, but multiple Frances. France wasn’t just Paris and Versailles, or the bewigged and bejeweled aristocrats who orbited the palaces of Louis XV and Louis XVI. It also seethed with revolutionaries and philosophes, and even among its privileged elites there are manifold signs of discontent and disgust. Nor was French art limited to rococo frippery and blushing pink ladies. It also embodied an internal critique of the old regime. Along with the curves, elegance and flowery garden fetes there were works of great visual austerity and moral severity.

Even more important, this exhibition demonstrates the power of aesthetic objects to refine taste. It shows how, over time, the desire to accumulate and display can lead to the ability to make distinctions, notice things and even inspire scholarship.

Jacques Louis David. "Portrait of Jacques-Francois Desmaisons," 1782. (Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery)

The show brings together 68 paintings borrowed from American collections, and with a few exceptions, the quality of the work is extraordinarily high. It includes painting by Jacques Louis David (a sweet-mannered portrait), as well as works by Fragonard, Chardin, Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, Hubert Robert and Francois Hubert Drouais (represented by several pieces, which suggests his work is better than its reputation). In some cases, important related works are reunited (two paintings of Venus by Boucher, one of which was owned by Alva Vanderbilt, are now in the same room for the first time since the 18th century), and some spectacular works that live in smaller institutions are getting deserved exposure on a larger stage (including a pair of 1729 portraits of a married couple by Nicolas de Largillierre that are held by the small but distinguished Timkin Museum of Art in San Diego).

Jackall suggests four “modes” of American engagement with French art. There was interest in the painting as souvenir, as a memory or token of some aspect or celebrity of French culture; there was a desire to find works to decorate the new palaces and townhouses of American elites; there was a delight in what she calls the “campiness” of French art that reveled in parties, dress up, theater and display; and finally, there was an institutional imperative to fill up and flesh out serious American collections of French art.

But there were also what we would today call “thought leaders” who introduced Americans to French art and guided taste and curiosity. Some of this was done from afar, by figures such as the aristocratically inclined and temperamentally nostalgic Goncourt Brothers, writers and critics who reintroduced France to the virtues of 18th century, pre-revolutionary art. And some of this was done here, in the United States, by figures such as Joseph Bonaparte, the older brother of Napoleon, who fled Europe and lived in America (with a magnificent collection of art) for almost 20 years, beginning in 1815. There were also important collectors, dealers and museum curators who contributed to the sophistication of American interest in this work.

Francois Boucher. "The Bath of Venus," 1751. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Francois Boucher. "The Toilette of Venus," 1751. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eighteenth-century France can cleave the heart of any honest egalitarian and democrat, and the work on display may leave visitors divided in their feelings. Works that either depicted or were designed to appeal to elites have a charm and intelligence that is entrancing, even if the portraits depict a rogue’s gallery of punchable faces and mythical or allegorical scenes are filled not with human beings but decorative concatenations of flesh. The more moralizing works that came after the heyday of rococo style can be austere to a fault, as if the poet has stripped away simile, metaphor and analogy and ended up with a style as enchanting as the prohibitions of Leviticus.

So the exhibition distills a painful question we often confront in the museum: What to do with art that is deeply compromised by the conditions of its origin? In this case, the question is even more pointed, because it was American collectors who embraced this work, in some cases to further their own pretensions, to the detriment of a more egalitarian, fair and decent society.

Time often strips away the power of art to offend us, so that the propaganda of yesteryear is forgotten and the artwork seems empty of any manipulative intent. If we’re honest, we may recognize that our own era — defined by vast inequities in wealth, contempt for the poor and a social contract that prizes wealth over all else — is not innocent of the same barbarism embodied in the work of earlier eras. Or we may adopt a purely formalist sensibility, and argue that it is the work in and of itself that matters, not who made it, who paid for it or who benefited from its display.

Nicolas de Largillierre. "Portrait of Marguerite de Seve, Wife of Barthelemy Jean Claude Pupil," 1729. (Timken Museum of Art)

Nicolas de Largillierre . "Portrait of Barthelemy Jean Claude Pupil," 1729. (Timken Museum of Art)

In the case of many of the paintings in this exhibition, there is yet another strategy. We must recognize that these paintings have what we need: a taste for complexity, nuance and refinement. For all their failings, socially, culturally and politically, the elites of this era were better at many things than we are, and these images ultimately chasten us for our blunt, literal, humorless view of the world. The paired portraits from the Timken Museum, for example, are depictions of wealth and power, to be sure, but they also set up a game of contrasts that undermines the basic gender lines of the time. The female figure is a study in openness, with an open harpsichord lid behind her, an open book of music on its stand, and an open stance before the viewer, while her husband stands with one arm on a closed book, and the other pulled inward toward his black-robed torso. She wears a decorated breast plate above her sumptuous skirt, while he is a study in soft, flowing fabric. Technically, the answer is “neither,” but you may still wonder: Who wears the pants in this house?

The exhibition is smartly structured to accentuate the interplay and dialogue between works. In one room we see Jean-Baptiste Greuze, often considered an irredeemably sentimental painter, repurpose the theatrical clarity of painters such as David for comic effect. In another, a magnificent portrait of of Madame de Pompadour (by Boucher) presides over works that she commissioned or owned.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze. "The Drunken Cobbler," 1776-1779. (Portland Art Museum)

American interest in this work grew and developed over the 19th century. Some collectors were wowed by the pedigree of the paintings, that something they purchased was once owned by someone who had a royal title or connection (though these were often imaginary or manufactured by art dealers). Today, American collections have prize pieces that curators in France can only envy, including the magnificent Fragonards at the Frick Collection in New York. Taste has marched forward from primitive cupidity to institutional thoroughness.

But the work itself still challenges American sensibilities in all the right ways. We are crude and stupid before it, just as our ancestors were a century or two ago. The lessons Jefferson and Franklin sought to learn from France are still lessons unlearned. Subtle thought and fine manners — powerful tools no matter to what ends they are put — are still dismissed as unnecessary refinement, effete and pretentious. We may not want to be French, or live on the terms of French society; but we would do better if we could at least follow them as their minds moved over the surface of the world.

America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Aug. 20. For more information, visit nga.gov.