Morgan Library and Museum, 268 pp., $40.00
Some of us suddenly find ourselves very pleased that the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm is closed for refurbishing. It has resulted in the museum sending to the Morgan Library and Museum an unusually good loan show of paintings and drawings. Everything we see was collected, though not always for himself, by Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, a Swede whose lifetime covered much of the eighteenth century—he died in 1770 at seventy-four—and whose involvement with art gives us, with the help of the organizers of the current exhibition, a stimulating way to take in what might be called classic European old master art.
Tessin was, among other things, a politician, a serious cataloguer of his collections, a government official, and a diplomat. He was his country’s ambassador to France between 1739 and 1742, and he became a link between Sweden’s royal family and the art world of the time. That meant Paris, which Tessin had first visited at age nineteen and may have considered his second home. With his expertise, he arranged for the purchase of pictures for the collection of his country’s prince and princess royal and later for its queen. The selection of his purchases for himself and others goes in two almost equally absorbing directions. The drawings, which range from the 1400s through Tessin’s day, are replete with masterworks and give us additionally a window on the art market of that day.
The possibly richer half of the exhibition is about painting, specifically Jean-Siméon Chardin and to a lesser extent François Boucher, two of the foremost artists of the years when Tessin was in and out of Paris. For some commentators, one of the Bouchers on view, The Triumph of Venus, is a candidate for being the painter’s greatest single work. One of the Chardins here, The Morning Toilette, has likewise been thought a high point for this artist. As it happens, both were painted around 1740, and each was commissioned by Tessin.
But just as significantly, there are four other paintings on view by Chardin (1699–1779) of the same type as The Morning Toilette. Generally referred to as genre pictures, they are small tableaux of people caught up in their daily existence. They are a kind of work that Chardin, somewhat like his Dutch predecessors Vermeer and Gerard ter Borch (and like few other artists from any era), elevated to a level where there can be such an organic, breathing unity between the quietly dramatic spirit of the scene, the fresh, convincing, and unillustrational way the figures embody this spirit, and the limpid yet sensuous painting of the smallest detail, as to seem miraculous. Seeing five of these Chardins on a wall at the Morgan—I do not think there are works of comparable strength by the artist in New York museums—one is…
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