Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 1, 2006
To Delight the Eye: French Drawings and Paintings from the Collection of Charles E. Dunlap
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, December 17, 2005–March 12, 2006
Large
François Boucher. Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour. ca. 1758. Oil on canvas. 81.2 x 64.9 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums. Bequest of Charles E. Dunlap, 1966.47. Photo: Katya Kallsen © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

To Delight the Eye is a charming exhibition of six major paintings and twenty-four drawings donated to the Fogg Art Museum by the Harvard alumnus Charles E. Dunlap (1889–1966). The exhibition, mounted by Alvin L. Clark, Jr., the Jeffery E. Horvitz Research Curator in the Department of Drawings at the Fogg, focuses primarily on artworks produced during the reigns of Louis XV (r. 1715–74) and his successor, Louis XVI (r. 1774–93), but extends into the nineteenth century with drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Clark has authored an accompanying brochure (Harvard University Art Museums Gallery Series, no. 48, 2005) that summarizes the life and legacy of Dunlap, illustrates in color key works in the exhibition, and provides a complete checklist of artworks on view.

In his brochure, Clark informs us about the penchant of Dunlap and his contemporaries for refined, elegant, and graceful works of the Rococo, a taste that accords with the aesthetics of the important nineteenth-century art critics Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, as expressed in their influential L’Art au dix-huitième siècle (1856–75). Resultantly, the exhibition focuses on the fashions, pastimes, erotic indulgences, and cultural pursuits of the eighteenth-century elite. The show ranges over the entire spectrum of the hierarchy of genres established by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture: from history painting to portraits of elegant women to genre scenes to landscapes. Nevertheless, genre scenes predominate.

Beginning with the pinnacle of the hierarchy of genres, we are treated to the Standing Female Nude (ca. 1720–25?), in black, red, and white chalk, by François Le Moyne. Le Moyne, who won two prizes for drawing at the Royal Academy (1706, 1707), fashions this graceful full-length nude from the back with his characteristically fluent, sinuous line. The draughtsmanship is so elegant than one might confuse it with a trois-crayon by Le Moyne’s contemporary Antoine Watteau, as did Dunlap.

In turn, one of the key history paintings of the show is Charles-Joseph Natoire’s beautiful watercolor Bacchanal (undated). Like Le Moyne, Natoire devoted himself to drawing the female nude: “I prefer a subject which will allow me to paint the nude, so that I can present the art of drawing to its best advantage . . .” (Colin B. Bailey, The Loves of the Gods: Mythological Painting from Watteau to David, Fort Worth and New York: Kimbell Art Museum, in association with Rizzoli, 1992, 358). Thus Natoire features two seductive nudes in erotic abandon in front of a classical urn and a pastoral landscape. Their creamy flesh and provocative poses are displayed for the delectation of two swarthy satyrs who, with whetted appetites, are about to pounce. The joyous tone of this lighthearted mythology is underpinned by Natoire’s decorative gifts: his rhythmic composition, pastel coloration, and consummate draughtsmanship.

Dunlap’s portraits are equally agreeable, and his perspicacious taste manifests itself in portraits of sophisticated women of the period. Two of them feature a type that has been called “the femme savante,” a cultivated dévotée of music, reading, and the arts. For example, Jacques-André Portail’s Woman Holding a Musical Score (undated), a delicate watercolor with touches of red and black chalk, features an anonymous sitter who leans on a pillow in an attitude of aristocratic nonchalance and grace. She holds a musical score, perhaps her own composition or that of a musician whom Portail befriended at the court of Louis XV. The score is entitled CANTATE A VOIX SEULE, a metrical narrative set to recitative and air, accompanied by one or more instruments, in this case a flute which rests under the notated score. Likewise, Portail’s Presumed Double Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Frédou (undated), a drawing of black and red chalk, features the communion of minds of an elegantly dressed couple in the confines of their home. Set in a genre context, the portrait features the lady holding a volume or a musical score in which her husband also expresses interest.

No distinguished collection of eighteenth-century drawings would be complete without a portrait by the “prince of pastelists,” Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. La Tour’s brilliance as a recorder of the character of his sitters during the middle years of the eighteenth century is manifested in the exhibition by the Portrait of a Woman (undated). This amiable sitter, whose identity remains a mystery, is fashioned in a typical confidential half-length, a format that enabled the artist to focus on the facial traits and expressions of his subjects. The lady sits comfortably in a brocaded period chair and is garbed in the haute couture fancied by elite women of the day: a wide-necked dress of grayish-blue silk, the texture of which is rendered by La Tour’s virtuosic hatching. The silk sleeves of this dress flow into piquant double-laced engageants, fastened at the forearm by stylish ribbon bows. The glimmering blue of these bows reverberates in the lady’s ribbon-bowed stomacher, which in turn leads to a modest décolleté. However, it is a tribute to La Tour’s penchant for realism that he does not allow this modish dress to overwhelm his sitter’s unabashedly plain features and touchingly corpulent middle-aged face. Her benevolent smile would seem to signal a warm rapport with her brilliant, albeit recalcitrant, portraitist.

Both La Tour and Portail were patronized by the most celebrated woman of the day, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, the official companion of Louis XV, who was admired for her beauty, intelligence, and cultivation. Thus, it is fitting that the centerpiece of the Dunlap-Fogg show is François Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette (1750, with later additions). This composite portrait depicts the beautiful marquise at her dressing table, applying makeup, presumably for the king, whose effigy appears on her cameo bracelet. Even though this wonderful portrait has been the subject of numerous socio-political interpretations, this reviewer’s included, it did not begin as a narrative half-length of Pompadour accompanied by accouterments of beauty.

Alden R. Gordon and Teri Hensick have recently demonstrated (“The Picture Within the Picture: Boucher’s 1750 Portrait of Madame de Pompadour Identified,” Apollo 155 [February 2002]: 21–30) that the Fogg’s oval portrait is composed of several strips of canvas that extend an original rectangle by Boucher representing merely Pompadour’s face and shoulders (ca. 1750). These strips were added on two separate occasions: the first enlarged the original into a narrative portrait and the second transformed the larger rectangle into an oval. Notwithstanding these amplifications, this work remains one of the most dazzling portraits of the eighteenth century.

In the Goncourts’ sunny view of the eighteenth century, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was the rightful heir to the charmingly seductive brush of his teacher Boucher. In accordance with the Goncourts’ aesthetics, Dunlap collected four piquant genre scenes by the late Rococo master: the Servant Girls’ Dormitory (brown wash over graphite and brown ink [undated]), a mildly erotic peek at young girls, in various states of undress, preparing for bed; and Young Girl Abandoned (ca. 1790), the only compositional study related to the artist’s masterpiece, The Progress of Love (1771–73). Fragonard’s paintings are represented in the exhibition by the Young Woman with Brown Hair (undated), a bust-length image of a nubile young girl, whose titillating décolletage, fresh complexion, and coquettish smile are rendered with the verve of Fragonard’s brilliant brush. Further, the Feigned Flight (undated) is an amusing rendition of an elegant young woman escaping the advances of her suitor in an ebullient park landscape.

The final two genre pictures of the exhibition are the pendants, The First Steps and the rarely discussed and illustrated The Beloved Child, both of which date about 1780–85. As to the authorship of these works, the consensus is that Fragonard conceived and painted small portions of them while his talented sister-in-law, Marguerite Gérard, carried out most of the execution. This execution consists of a revival of the elegant Dutch Fine-Painter mode, a style that appealed to eighteenth-century connoisseurs who avidly collected such genre scenes of the previous century. Gérard’s Fine-Painter facture is manifested in the shimmering rose and yellow silk dress of First Steps’s fashionable mother, who welcomes her bare-bottomed son (painted by Fragonard) as he takes his first tentative steps on an honorific red carpet spread out in front of a luxuriant wooded landscape. The Beloved Child, in turn, celebrates with exuberance another pretty young mother who ecstatically pulls the sled of her infant in front of a luxurious fête-galante-like landscape, a setting that was formerly the backdrop for the illicit assignations of mistresses and their swains: the amorous coquette has metamorphosed here into the joyful, caring mother, a topos in cultural circulation in the latter half of the eighteenth century (see Carol Duncan, “Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art,” Art Bulletin 55 [December 1973]: 570–83). One wonders if Charles Dunlap, who remained a bachelor for most of his life, took a fancy to these pictures because of unfulfilled dreams of a happy nuclear family.

Elise Goodman
Professor of Art History, Department of Art History, University of Cincinnati, Raymond Walters College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.