Paris – Musée Jacquemart-André
There is a French saying which goes: “En avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil; en mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît”. In April, stay covered; in May, do as you please. Well this past month of May in Paris was definitely the exception which proves the rule. The weather was chilly, gray and wet, and raincoats and umbrellas were not to be left at home. Beauty and sunshine could nevertheless be found in one of Paris’s best and maybe least known museums, the Musée Jacquemart-André.
A gem of a museum in the manner of New York’s Frick, Philadelphia’s Barnes, Rio de Janeiro’s Castro Maya or Mexico City’s Franz Mayer, this private collection in a stunning hotel particulier on Boulevard Haussmann has become my favorite art museum in the city, and maybe in any city, not only for the gorgeous setting and the magnificence of its contents, but also for its knack for organizing the very best exhibitions in town. On my last three visits to Paris, I saw a Caillebotte brothers (painter and photographer) exhibit, a Canaletto-Guardi show, and now Eugène Boudin. If you go to the museum’s website, you will see the descriptions of many other splendid exhibitions they organized over the years. You will also learn about its history, stemming from the union of banker Édourd André and artist Nélie Jacquemart. Apart from the quality of the art displayed, the manner in which it is displayed is always imaginative, sparkling and in good taste. It is also very didactic, but never in a boring way – the short descriptions and captions are always just right to guide your viewing and to whet your appetite for more information, which you can get on your way out in the excellent museum shop, either in the catalogues or in the specialized book store. To round up your visit in a most delicious manner, I also recommend lunch or tea at the museum cafeteria, redolent of Belle Époque charm.
So there was no better way to forget the foul weather than by leaving your raincoat and umbrella in the cloakroom of the Jacquemart-André and heading to the Boudin exhibit, a trip which allows you to savor the architecture and the museum’s small but spectacular permanent collection which includes two of my favorites in any museum, Paolo Uccello’s St. George and the Dragon and a Bellini Madonna I could look at forever. Both these paintings are striking in their composition and colors and stunning by their utter contemporariness.
After paying this obligatory homage, on to the temporary exhibition space for what was to be a great discovery of a familiar but somewhat neglected artist, the genius of whom was extolled by no less than the great Monet himself, who never ceased to proclaim his indebtedness to Boudin.
Born in Honfleur, raised in Le Havre, having worked on a boat which traveled between the two Norman towns, it is not surprising that Boudin’s artistic output has so much to do with the outdoors, and especially with the coast, the beaches, the sea and the sky and that he is a master landscape and marine painter. What is less obvious is his great taste and skill for depicting the society of his day on these backdrops, be it the elegant bourgeoisie or the colorful working class. Two of the best paintings on show, the 1865 “Concert at the Deauville Casino” and the 1881 “Fisherwomen on Berck Beach” are marvelous examples of his eye for detail and for the contrasts between the classes, visible not only in the settings and costumes, but also in the poses, gestures and suggested expressions. It may seem strange to speak of expression in barely delineated faces, but it is unmistakably there, as are the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of each social group. The former painting is perhaps one of his most magnificent, a miracle of composition in which each element can be singled out and admired – the architecture of the Casino, the delicately clouded sky, the rolling green hills, the faraway houses and, in the foreground, the elegant and lively crowd of concertgoers which, in keeping with what one often notices in concert halls all over the world, seem to be divided between the true listeners and the show-offs who don’t care at all about what is being played – they are seen chatting while the conductor wields his baton in the background. The textures are what most strikes me – there is no doubt you are looking at painted wrought iron and wood, at trees and grass, at wispy clouds in the sky and at gorgeous dresses, with lavish details of design and transparency. The “Beach at Trouville” is an equally superb rendition with exquisite detail and a splendid use of color, witness the bold red dress of the woman in the foreground. The above-mentioned Fisherwomen at Berck, the “Washerwomen on the margin of the Touque” and the “Pardon en Bretagne”, to name only a few, show the other end of the social range depicted with the same care and expression, with emphasis on the lack of frivolity. The pure marines and landscapes are beautiful in their simplicity , as are the cathedrals and lighthouses and majestic sailboats.
Now, I wonder why, in an impulse, I entitled this article “The Reluctant Impressionist”. I don’t think he was a reluctant impressionist at all, it’s just that the term had not yet been coined. According to Laurent Maneuvre and Isabelle Schmitz who wrote in the special edition of the Figaro Hors –Série (which I urge you to get if Boudin interests you), Boudin was, in fact, the precursor of Impressionism. They call him “l’éclaireur”, the scout, the advance man. In the words of Marie Zawisza, in the same magazine, Boudin built a bridge between Fragonard, Watteau and Chardin, on the one hand, and Monet, on the other. And, as I mentioned before, Monet had enormous respect and admiration for the man he considered to be his mentor. In an interview in 1900, Monet said: “Boudin, with an inexhaustible kindness, set out to educate me. Eventually, my eyes opened and I was able to understand nature… Suddenly, it was as if a veil had been torn: I had understood, I had grasped what painting could be.”
I’m even less of an art historian than I am a musicologist, so I need to interrupt these amateurish musings on a superb artist who has by now been extensively studied by qualified researchers and let you do your own investigating. But if these lines have aroused your interest, as this extraordinary exhibition did mine, I will have achieved what I set out to do a few pages ago.