The Fantastical Neoclassical

L'Antiquité rêvée: innovations et résistances au XVIIIe siècle

an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, December 2, 2010–February 14, 2011, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 20–May 30, 2011.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Guillaume Faroult, Christophe Leribault, and Guilhem Scherf. Paris: Louvre éditions/Gallimard, 500 pp., €45.00
Not all the works on view at the Louvre are traveling to Houston, where the exhibition, titled "Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century," is supplemented with works from the Houston collections and elsewhere. The English-language catalog accompanying the Houston exhibition is also published by Louvre éditions/Gallimard ($45.00).
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The High Priest Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirrhoe, 10.1 x 13.1 feet, 1765

The Comte d’Angiviller, Louis XVI’s fine arts supremo, knew his man when in 1775 he picked the painter Joseph-Marie Vien to head the Académie Royale’s program in Rome. It was time to reimpose some control on the headstrong young Frenchmen studying at the Palazzo Mancini, the Académie’s Rome headquarters: and Vien, nearing sixty, was exactly the type of painter a reformist bureaucrat could work with. “Accommodating, prudent and wise,”1 Denis Diderot had called him, reviewing the previous decade’s Salons. Diderot had also deemed Vien’s Marcus Aurelius Giving Aid to the People—nine square yards of columns, tunics, and hand gestures—“harsh, dry, and flat.”2

But then the sheer self-important dullness of the fellow would surely be of value in disciplining his charges—the prizewinning young painters who went, four each year, from the modern metropolis of Paris to breathe the air once breathed by the ancients, by Raphael, and by Poussin. Vien indeed took to his new responsibilities with zeal: he proposed to d’Angiviller that during their five-year intensive drawing course, the future leaders of French art should be made to wear special uniforms.

Château de Fontainebleau
Joseph-Marie Vien, The Girl Selling Cupids, 3.2 x 4 feet, 1763

Three decades earlier, Vien had been such a prizewinner himself. Then, on his return to Paris in 1750, he had fallen under the wing of the Comte de Caylus, an eminent antiquarian and art-world busybody. They enthused together over the excavations that had recently begun, three days’ ride south of Rome, at Pompeii. The critic got the painter to attempt reviving the ancients’ encaustic wax technique for painting—an experiment that led nowhere—then lent him freshly published volumes of engravings after Pompeian murals. From these Vien derived a set of canvases that made something of a splash in the Salon of 1763. One of them, The Girl Selling Cupids (La Marchande d’amours), featured in “Antiquity Rediscovered,” the Louvre’s recent exhibition of eighteenth-century European art. It sets a hawker and her female clients more or less frieze-wise against a columned wall, in a manner adapted from Poussin. The three women seem dopily demure cousins to those monotonous nudes painted by the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux—but look again, and you realize that this is a Pompeian sex-toy party.

Diderot disapprovingly smirked at the phallic gesture the salesgirl’s cupid figure is making, and the way one woman’s hand has covertly reached for her skirts. The canvas displays the debonair professionalism that pervades Parisian art of the ancien régime: its play of tints, pale rose against deep greenish umbers, is exquisite; but it’s a wholly daft confection, a whimsical jeu d’esprit you…

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