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The Dahesh Museum in New York was the latest venue for an exhibition titled French Oil Sketches and the Academic Tradition, organized by the American Federation of the Arts and previously shown, in a more expanded version, at the Mint Museum, the Society of the Four Arts, the Arkansas Art Center, and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. The exhibition was composed entirely of works from a single private collection that is on long-term loan to the University Art Museum in Albuquerque.
Perfectly suited to the Dahesh Museum, both for its size and its theme, this exhibition had all the allure and charm of the “counter-blockbuster.” Comprising for the most part modest-sized works by little-known artists, it had nonetheless an aesthetic appeal and an educational importance that equaled if not surpassed many of the big-budget shows that have become obligatory in the exhibition repertory of established museums.
Including works by French artists from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, the exhibition focused on the academic oil sketch, broadly defined to include what French artists would have referred to as esquisses (compositional sketches), modèles (detailed compositional sketches to be shown to a patron), études (studies of a figure or a landscape, done from life), and ébauches (monochrome lay-ins). In addition, it comprised a group of small gouache costume studies and one or two reduced copies of completed works, for which the exhibition organizers coined the rather unhappy oxymoron sketch-copy, a term that I hope will not gain currency.
It is precisely because the exhibition was composed of preparatory works that that had different functional relationships to finished paintings that it showed an interesting variety. Artists took distinct approaches and used specific technical means in the various types of “sketches” they made in preparation for an exhibition picture or tableau. While a compositional esquisse was generally painted from imagination in a free, “sketchy” manner, an étude was painted from the model in much detail. It is noteworthy that, while esquisses were never exhibited, études could be shown in exhibitions and were often singled out for praise. This does not mean that esquisses were not appreciated in their time. Visitors to an artist’s studio might well admire their spontaneity and freshness, but they were always conscious of their status as “preliminary” works. The same is true, of course, for ébauches, which were preliminary in an even more literal sense, as they would eventually disappear underneath the layers of paint of the finished painting. The few ébauches that have been preserved, therefore, always represent a state of incompleteness.
In the Dahesh Museum, where I saw the exhibition, the works were hung in an Ñaesthetic" arrangement. No attempt was made to group works by category or even chronologically. That meant that the wall texts and labels had to carry the full weight of the intellectual content of the exhibition, which made the reading a bit overwhelming. In favor of the aesthetic hanging, however, it may be argued that it did, indeed, accentuate the artistic qualities of the various kinds of sketches and emphasize their autonomous value as works of art. Moreover, the absence of a chronological order challenged the viewer to test Albert Boime’s thesis that academic sketching practices changed little over the two-hundred year period from the beginning of the Academy in 1648 to the gradual demise of academic practices from the mid-nineteenth century onward (The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, 1971).
The catalogue accompanying French Oil Sketches and the Academic Tradition was prepared for the more expanded version of the exhibition that was shown at previous venues. It contains an introductory essay by Peter Walch, Director of the University Art Museum at Albuquerque, as well as comprehensive catalogue entries for all works, discussed in chronological order by J. Patrice Marandel and Joanna R. Barnes. In his introductory essay, Walch discusses the various types of sketches and then proceeds to refute Boime’s thesis of a universal sketching style by attempting to argue, basing himself on examples in the exhibition, that the sketches are, indeed, representative of period styles. The essay ends with a discussion of the changed aesthetic sensibility that has caused modern viewers to give preference to the sketch over the finished picture.
Regrettably–for the exhibition seems to lend itself to it so well—no serious attempt is made in the catalogue to place the oil sketch in the context of contemporaneous atelier practices. This is true for the introductory essay and for the otherwise outstanding entries, which focus largely on the history and iconography of the sketches. Thus the oil sketch in its various forms is discussed without any reference to drawing, which, of course, was an integral part of the preparation of a painting, and one that cannot be divorced from the preparatory work in oils. In the discussion of François Gérard’s ébauche for The Tenth of August, for example, no mention is made of the squaring of the canvas, which relates the ébauche directly to a preliminary drawing. Once the squaring is noted, other questions regarding atelier practices arise: Who was responsible for the squaring and the transfer of the drawing? Did Gérard do this himself or was it the work of a student. The relatively clumsy contour drawing of some of the figures in the back might be a clue to the latter possibility. A good deal more could also have been said about the atelier usage of études. It is known that artists recycled them. Studies of hands, feet, draperies, in particular, could be used and reused for various purposes. Sometimes they were even lent to colleagues. Much textual material (memoirs, diaries, letters) is available to study such practices, and it is regrettable that no greater effort was made to locate and make use of it.
Despite these minor reservations, French Oil Sketches and the Academic Tradition was a delightful exhibition, and one in which a serious attempt was made to revisit a group of “minor” works of art, not in an attempt at revisionism but rather in a demonstration that they were an integral and important part of the art world of their time. The catalogue is a model of scholarship, particularly in the precise and thorough way in which the individual entries have been researched.
Department of Art and Music, Seton Hall University