This exhibition culls nearly one hundred highlights representing four centuries of French master drawings from the renowned holdings of The British Museum. From the refined production of sixteenth-century court society to the cafe society of the nineteenth century, the elegance and innovation characteristic of French art are traced through outstanding examples of draftsmanship rarely exhibited due to their sensitivity to light. Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Post-Impressionism, including works by Jean Clouet, Claude Lorrain, Antoine Watteau, Edgar Degas, and Georges Seurat, illuminate the remarkable achievements of the French artistic tradition over four centuries.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition creates a visually compelling picture of the evolution of French draftsmanship from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century. Whether the drawings were made as part of a working process or as works of art in their own right, they reveal the mastery and exquisite beauty of the French artistic tradition in the artists' most direct and immediate means of expression. Among the works on view are two of a group of royal portraits from the sixteenth century by Jean Clouet (1485/90–1541) and his son François Clouet (ca. 1516–1572) that are rare examples of the early use of different colored chalks to produce naturalistic effects. Under Queen Catherine de Médicis' such royal portraits in colored chalks were collected and valued as independent works of art.
A more unified national style emerged in the seventeenth century, in part due to the establishment in 1648 of the French Royal Academy (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture), where the influence of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) contributed to the development of a cool and classicizing Baroque idiom. Another formulation of the Baroque style reached its apogee in the work of landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), who spent his working career in Rome. Indisputably the French Baroque artist most beloved by British collectors, Claude is represented in the exhibition by five works—selected from among five hundred in The British Museum's collection—which demonstrate the range of his production, from free plein air studies to the breathtakingly fresh drawings from his Liber Veritatis, in which he made record drawings of his completed paintings.
The French Enlightenment is represented, on the one hand, by the sparkling trois crayons drawings by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), the most original and influential Rococo draftsman, and on the other hand by the more cerebral drawings of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). Tendencies inspired by Watteau's informal and accessible style were stifled by the French Revolution of 1789, and with David at the helm, French art returned to a conservative classicism.
During the nineteenth century, great innovation often coexisted with a deep respect for the art of the past. Artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), David's leading pupil, and Jean-Louis Gérôme (1824–1904) continued the academic tradition. Romantics like Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Realists like Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), all represented in the exhibition, laid the foundations for groundbreaking movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Drawings continued to play an integral role in this evolution, even as artistic traditions were challenged and reinvented. Two studies for La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859–1891) are on view, as are drawings by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), among others.
The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is in memory of William Slattery Lieberman (February 14, 1923–June 1, 2005).
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The British Museum.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.