The mostly-19th-century French galleries in the National Gallery of Art’s John Russell Pope-designed West Building re-opened late last month after a two-year renovation. Visitors will notice nothing different about the spaces themselves — the NGA has been undergoing building maintenance and systems upgrades in the West Building for 14 years — but the installation of the art itself is newly considered. This provides an opportunity to see a few new paintings — such as the Gustave Courbet seascape The Black Rocks at Trouville [below left], acquired last year — and to see a new curatorial take on the NGA’s French collection, one of the four or five best in America.
Strangely, the NGA has billed the old-made-new galleries as the museum’s “impressionism and post-impressionism” spaces, but that’s not quite correct: The 14 galleries open with the Barbizon school and continue through Matisse, Picasso and paintings from as late as the 1920s. The installation was overseen by Mary Morton, the NGA’s head of French paintings. She came to the NGA from the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2009. Accordingly, this is her first chance to present the collection.
Morton’s installation is uneven. She has allowed many of the strengths of the museum’s collection to shine — Monets everywhere! — and she has created some interesting interplay between artworks. But she has also installed puzzling groupings in some of the museum’s galleries and she has omitted both key historical developments in art as well as major artists.
Among the highlights are galleries devoted entirely to Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet. The NGA doesn’t have a trademark Cezanne the way MoMA or the Barnes Foundation does, but just over half of its 23 Cezanne canvases are on view, headlined by this late still-life. (The NGA’s best Cezannes may be watercolors. Works on paper are generally not included in Morton’s installation.)
It’s good to see Morton give Eugene-Louis Boudin, the most underrated early impressionist, prime play among Monet, Constable and Courbet in what might be called an ‘early impressionist landscape’ gallery. Coming after a dull, Corot-and-Co. gallery of Barbizon landscapes, Morton’s presentation of Courbet-and-after reminds us what a revolution the impressionists started, how their technique and their interest in modern life was wholly unlike what came before. Though small, the three Boudins command the space. Boudin’s prominence reflects an NGA collection strength: Boudin was a favorite of the Mellons, the NGA’s founding family, and accordingly the NGA has over 20 Boudin paintings and a couple dozen drawings.
Morton’s best hang is a particularly strong gallery of the 1860s, in which Manet’s The Tragic Actor, in the center of one wall, seems to be staring, even glaring, directly at The Dead Toreador. The presentation highlights the theatricality of both paintings and brings the NGA’s ultra-reserved space to life.
Another smart gallery titled ‘Manet and Modern Paris’ includes (with one exception) paintings made in and around Paris after Napoleon III and Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann re-engineered the city between 1853 and 1870. The NGA is surprisingly light on impressionism that shows the expansion of French industry, so this is about as close to high-impressionism-meets-modernity as the museum can do.
And Morton does it well: She shows us the Haussmann-ization of Paris as portrayed by Pissarro (twice), Renoir (twice, thanks to a loan from the Norton Simon), and how Paris was a playground for the emergent upper-middle class. Lest we forget Paris’s economic surge left people behind, Manet gave us a great painting of the urban poor, The Old Musician, one of the greatest paintings of an urban under-class since Caravaggio made dirty feet as realistic as could be. (Was the family shown here displaced by Haussmann’s zeal?)
This gallery also includes one of Manet’s most famed masterpieces The Railway [image at top left], a painting of a woman and child at Paris’s busiest train station, The Gare Saint-Lazare. The view out of the gallery, from The Old Musician to a gallery on the other side of the NGA West Building’s central corridor is especially clever: The old musician can’t see Jacques-Louis David’s exquisite, extravagant portrait of Napoleon, Napoloen III’s uncle, but the tension between the wealthy ruling family and the poor, possibly displaced peasants is striking. Similarly, in the next hallway-facing gallery over, Monet landscapes look out at a brushy, sketchy, late Constable landscape, The White Horse. The art historical dialogue that Morton and Pope’s architecture has created is an Easter egg hiding in plain sight.
But the new installation doesn’t always flow this smoothly. Why is a gallery in which Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin thrillingly face each other from opposite walls interrupted by half a dozen Degases? A natural threesome they are not. Why is a Degas ‘dancer’ sculpture in between the van Goghs and the Gauguins? The NGA has more than enough great van Gogh and Gauguin — and Degas too — to devote an entire gallery to each should it choose to. (More on that in a minute.) [Image: Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889.]
Then there’s what Morton leaves out: Even though the NGA’s collection includes strong examples of both Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard is completely left out of the NGA’s headline hang, and Vuillard is represented by just one painting: A 1912 portrait, one of the less interesting Vuillards in the museum’s collection. Better Vuillard and all Bonnards are instead shunted to a series of claustrophobic galleries on the ground floor of the East Building. Those rooms, long an afterthought and titled “Small French Paintings,” have been in need of a re-conceptualization for years. (No sign of that in sight, alas: As the NGA puts it in an inadvertently hilarious press release, “The works in these rooms [in the East Building] have also been part of reconsidering the 19th-century French collection in the West Building.” Uh-huh.)
The split between the East and West spaces — actually three spaces if you count some 19thC French galleries on the west side of the ground floor of the West Building, a nearly block-long trek from the principal French galleries — serves as a reminder of the NGA’s ongoing and un-addressed space problem. The NGA’s peer institutions have all added hundreds of thousands of square feet since the NGA last expanded in 1978. The museum’s collection has grown substantially in those 31 years and the museum’s collections of French art, American art, photography, works-on-paper and modern-and-contemporary art are severely underserved. The awkward van Gogh-Gaugin-Degas gallery serves as a reminder of the museum’s long-standing failure to address its space issues.
While two of France’s greatest fin-de-siecle artists are left out and while Degas is only awkwardly included, Morton has made room for lesser lights such as gaudy Orientalist Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and wincing romanticist Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin. The symbolist gallery that includes the Bocklin is so treacly that it makes this Felix Vallotton look significant. [Image: Constant, The Favorite of the Emir, c. 1879.]
(Also missing is work from artists who worked around Pont Aven in Brittany, such as Emile Bernard and Paul Serusier. To be sure, there’s nothing Morton could do about this one: The NGA’s lone Serusier painting is second-rate and the museum does not have a Bernard.)
Stranger still: In a gallery built around an Orientalist theme, Morton includes a tempting 1917 Modigliani nude and two mid-1920s, Nice-period Matisses. In another themed gallery, titled “Bohemian Paris,” we get Picassos from 1901, 1905 and 1923. Not only has Morton skipped past Bonnard, Vuillard, the Nabis and the Pont Aven painters, she’s sped by cubism, fauvism and even dada. There are no paintings here from any of those movements.
This historical disconnect may be due to the NGA’s curatorial-department silos. The NGA has a department of modern and contemporary art. “Its” galleries are in the NGA’s East Building. Perhaps cubism, fauvism and other 20th-century avant garde movements “belong” to modern-and-contemporary, whereas Nice-era Matisse does not, for whatever reason. Ultimately, that’s pretty thin and requires a visitor to think way too much about the NGA’s organizational chart. If the NGA’s French galleries are going to push past World War I and into the 1920s, it’s inconceivable that they fail to include the 1900s, 1910s and the rise of Dada during The Great War. [Image: Chaim Soutine, Portrait of a Boy, 1928.]
And maybe, in the future, they will. One of the pleasure of collection galleries is — or should be — that they are spaces with which curators can tinker and experiment at any time. Maybe the West Building galleries will end up going into the 1920s with some degree of thoroughness, maybe what’s there now is just a first-take. Here’s hoping Morton takes full advantage of the NGA’s strong collection of French art, and that she keeps what have traditionally been sleepy, static spaces alive with new installations.