After two years of renovation and rethinking, the 19th-century French galleries at the National Gallery of Art are open again. Visitors will notice little in the way of architectural change. Old systems have been updated and, as of last week, the wooden floors had a powerful odor of new varnish. A room once used for storage has been added to a suite of 14 large and small spaces that highlight 163 of the best of the National Gallery’s nearly 400 works from this period.
“The building is 70 years old, and it was basically never updated,” says Mary Morton, curator of French painting at the National Gallery.
A significant change in how the paintings are displayed, however, is obvious. Morton, who came to the National Gallery from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in part to oversee the rehang of these rooms, has taken an eclectic approach. It is not strictly chronological or biographical (only two rooms are devoted to the work of single artists) or thematic, but a mix of the three. Some rooms, especially one devoted to some of the “greatest hits” of the collection (Renoir’s 1885 “Girl With a Hoop” and Monet’s 1880 “Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil”), seem designed purely for sybaritic delight.
The National Gallery originally was not strong in French work. At its 1941 opening, there was not a single 19th-century French work to be seen. That reflected the tastes of the principal donor, Andrew Mellon, who wasn’t much interested in the period, and his conviction that other donors would come forward to fill the gap. They did, notably Chester Dale in 1962; Mellon’s children Paul and Aisla; Joseph Widener; and Agnes and Eugene Meyer (who owned The Washington Post and whose descendants still run it). The collection is now very strong, but also (in terms of competing U.S. museums) rather new.
Morton says the new galleries have “some things from storage, but not a lot, because it is still such a young collection.” Major holes include academic art and the more conservative or establishment painters, against whom the renegades of 19th-century art supposedly struggled but from whom they learned everything that made that struggle meaningful. There are images by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres across the hallway, filling out a neo-classical, 18th-19th century gallery. But a wish list would include Ary Scheffer, Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, often given to insipidity but rarely dull. Even so, the galleries look and feel splendid, with dynamic tension built into many of the rooms and a sense of thoroughness, without the monotony of a more orthodox, rigorously chronological approach.
Paris, as Walter Benjamin said in the title of one of his most famous essays, was “the capital of the 19th century.” And never more so than in 1905, when Picasso painted his large-scale vision of poor circus performers, “Family of Saltimbanques,” or in 1910 when the fabricated Russian exoticism of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” premiered at the Ballets Russes.
Although Paris dominates the new galleries, the idea of “French” art has been interpreted liberally, as have the boundaries of the “19th century.” The Picasso “Saltimbanques” is the climax of the new space, bridging the 19th-century inheritance and the new modernist impulse that would lead to cubism and beyond. Paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, which Morton says straddle awkwardly the 19th and 20th century divide, have been brought out of storage and included in the last room, with the Picasso.
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.
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.