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Prized 18th-Century French Drawings Add Context to Greuze the Draftsman Exhibition

French Drawings in the Age of Greuze
September 10-December 1, 2002

August 15, 2002

LOS ANGELES—French Drawings in the Age of Greuze, on view concurrently with Greuze the Draftsman from September 10 through December 1, 2002, presents a survey of 18th-century French drawings from the Getty Museum’s collection. The drawings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725–1805) were prized for their technical perfection, variety of media and subjects, and sensitive observation of the world. Those qualities can be said to characterize French draftsmanship as a whole during the 18th century, considered the golden age of drawing in France. It was a period when French draftsmen reached new heights of technical accomplishment, some even achieving fame on the basis of their drawings alone, and when the market for works on paper became wider than ever before.

French Drawings in the Age of Greuze features 33 works by some of the century’s greatest artists, such as François Boucher (1703–70) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), as well as by a number of the comparatively unfamiliar 18th-century French artists who concentrated on drawing rather than painting. It explores the entire century that opened with Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Rococo fêtes galantes (literally “elegant parties”) and closed with the dramatic neoclassical subjects of Jacques-Louis David.

“The 18th century in France was a period of phenomenal artistic change and social upheaval. This exhibition charts this splendid era in the history of drawing,” explains Lee Hendrix, curator of drawings at the Getty Museum. “From touching sensitivity to monumental pathos, these drawings engage with their range of technique and emotional subtlety.”

The exhibition begins with Watteau’s Seated Woman with a Fan (about 1717), a study for one of his famous fêtes galantes, which depict gatherings of exquisitely dressed figures in idyllic landscapes. This drawing of a coy young woman seems effortlessly crafted in  trois crayons (literally, “three chalks”—red, black, and white), a technique that is closely associated with Watteau.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a drawing by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, whose elaborate depiction of the Salon of 1753 is displayed in reproduction in Greuze the Draftsman. Saint-Aubin was a fixture in the Parisian art scene, faithfully attending exhibitions and making small drawings of the paintings and sculptures on view. In Sheet of Studies (1773), he sketched a woman reading, a boy drawing, and a sculpture The Birth of Venus by Simon-Georges-Joseph Pfaff. Although Saint-Aubin used the sheet for several different studies, he brilliantly unified them, creating an implicit relationship between the statue and the reading woman by placing them on the diagonal axis, from upper left to lower right, implying a transformation from the mythological figure to the contemporary one. Saint-Aubin also acknowledged the artist’s role as the mediator between imagination and reality by placing the draftsman between the figures at lower left.

Fragonard’s Oh! If Only He Were as Faithful to Me! (about 1770–75), depicts a young woman abandoned by her lover. This heartbreaking subject is unusual in the work of an artist more famous for his playful bedroom scenarios. Fragonard had been trained as a painter of serious historical themes, and he cleverly adapted these lessons to the sad young woman’s pose, which recalls that of a repentant saint. The artist’s vocabulary of long, undulating lines, in both the pencil underdrawing and the application of wash, emphasizes the soft forms of the bed, the dog, and the figure.

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