What inspires an artist to paint? Are visual artists motivated by religion, or do they find ideas and creative energy in romance, music, dance or the books they read? The answer is “yes, artists are motivated by all of these interests,” and that is the foundation for four exhibitions currently on view in Parisian venues.
These four shows we have reviewed explore the motivations and artistic choices made by Edgar Degas, Francis Bacon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and El Greco. Two of these exhibitions, currently on view in Paris, will travel to the USA in 2020. References to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and to the Art Institute of Chicago appear in this article.
Celebrating 350 Years of the Parisian Opéra
Edgar Degas referred to the Opéra de Paris as “my own room.” The Paris Opéra has inspired artists since its founding as the Académie d’Opéra in 1669 by Louis XIV. Soon after it was renamed the Académie Royale de Musique and today it is called the Opéra national de Paris, though simply known as “the Opéra.”
More than 50% of Degas’ output as a painter involves women and the Opéra. For Degas, the Opéra was a small, closed world brimming with potential for experimentation, where he was able to study the beauty, difficulty, precision and pain of human motion from multiple points of view. His paintings explored Parisian dance studios, foyers and boxes, as well as the orchestral musicians, dancers, singers and members of the audience who inhabited the stage and the auditorium. After viewing this exhibition we feel it is justified to place Degas among the great painters of light. He brilliantly recorded movement beneath contrasts in lighting and simultaneously captured a microcosm of French culture during the late 19th Century.
Edgar Degas in Paris & Washington, D.C.
“Degas at the Opéra” was jointly organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with major contributions from the Bibliothéque nationale de France, in recognition of the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Opéra. This exhibition will be presented from March 1 through July 5, 2020, in Washington’s National Gallery.
With his Irish wit, Francis Bacon cannot simply be called a “British” Painter
The British have a way of expropriating painters without telling the whole story. True, John Singer Sargent and James Whistler died while living in London but, truth be told, Sargent was born in Florence (to parents from the USA) and Whistler was from Lowell, Massachusetts. Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 and died in Madrid in 1992. His family moved back and forth from Ireland to England several times, leading to Bacon’s sense of displacement. “Displacement” is defined as the change in position of an object, implying that an object has moved or has been moved (displaced) from its usual or proper position. Bacon is a challenging painter and one of the greatest portrait painters in modern art; however, he freely displaced the figures in his paintings and he might move you too — away from your center of gravity and off-balance.
“BACON: BOOKS AND PAINTING” is a presentation of paintings he produced between 1971 and 1992, examined in relation to six texts taken from books found in Bacon’s personal library (which included over 1,000 volumes). “Great poets are incredible triggers of images, their words are essential to me, they stimulate me, they open the doors of my imagination,” the artist once said. According to the show’s curator, Didier Ottinger, the six literary, philosophical and literary texts selected for this exhibition demonstrate that “the authors in Bacon’s literary pantheon evoke a common poetic universe rooted in tragedy.”
The Parisian Stage through a Painter’s Eye
While it is true that the excitement of the Moulin-Rouge electrified the life and art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 — 1901), he was much more than a chronicler of Parisian life in the Montmartre neighborhood. An excellent draughtsman, Lautrec was commissioned by the Moulin-Rouge cabaret when it opened (1889) to produce a series of posters to promote its dancers and nightlife. While this graphic work provided the artist with a steady income and would lead to international recognition, that was not his primary motivation. Henri was born into one of the wealthiest families in France, and early on his family realized that his talents lay in drawing and painting and supported his education in the visual arts. His aristocratic heritage was not a blessing: a family history of inbreeding resulted in congenital health problems. By age 14 Henri had suffered fractures in both legs and his legs ceased to grow. He developed an adult-sized torso, but retained child-sized legs and for most of his life walked with the aid of a cane. Lautrec was mocked for his short stature, which led him to abuse alcohol, and he died at the age of 36.
Left: Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastel drawing of his friend, Vincent van Gogh (1887). Right: Portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec by Gustave Lucien Dennery (1883).
Privilege & Pain led to an Exploration of the Human Condition
Toulouse-Lautrec is considered one of the greatest Post-Impressionists, with Cezanne, Gauguin and van Gogh. Born in Albi, in south-central France, by age 18 Henri resided in Montmartre, a Parisian area known for its bohemian lifestyle and as a haunt for philosophers, writers, artists. Accomplished as an illustrator, printmaker and painter, Lautrec immersed himself in the colorful, theatrical world of Paris. He produced elegant, realistic and provocative images of the modern, and at times decadent, affairs of that era. Lautrec regularly contributed art at the Salon des Indépendants (founded by Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac). Lautrec also ventured into brothels and incorporated images of the urban underclass into his paintings. Unable to find acceptance in the world of his parents, a Comte and Comtesse, due to his physical appearance, Lautrec empathized with the less fortunate and preferred prostitutes to models. “A model is always a stuffed doll,” he said, “but these women are alive … and they are not in the least bit conceited.” Toulouse-Lautrec felt accepted and appreciated by the ladies in the brothels that inspired more than 50 paintings and hundreds of sketches, declaring “I have found girls of my own size! Nowhere else do I feel so much at home.”
El Greco’s Breakthrough Moment on the Parisian Cultural Scene
El Greco was way ahead of his time, and he alone enjoys a pivotal place in Western art history — as perhaps the last master of Late Renaissance painting who became the first master of the golden century of art in Europe. Born in 1541 in Crete (then a part of the Republic of Venice) and schooled in the Byzantine tradition before moving on to Venice and Rome, El Greco settled in Toledo, Spain, where he spent the final 37 years of his life. El Greco expressed the color, audacity, atmospheric light and heroic drama of the Italian Renaissance on his own terms. Rediscovered in the 18th Century by Delacroix, Manet and Cezanne, El Greco’s achievements inspired the Symbolists, Picasso during his Blue Period, Der Blaue Reiter group and Jackson Pollock. It is interesting to note that El Greco’s unique, expressive style received its highest praise early in the 20th Century, but was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries.
The exhibition at the Grand Palais marks El Greco’s first monographic show in France and while not huge — featuring 76 paintings — it possesses all the ingredients for a blockbuster. We loved it!
El Greco in Chicago in 2020
The works in this Parisian show will be exhibited in the USA from March 7 – October 19, 2020 when the Art Institute of Chicago presents “El Greco: Ambition & Defiance.”