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French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet at the British Museum

11 September 2016

friantI was very much looking forward to this exhibition which is now on at the British Museum until January. There are as you would expect some wonderful sheets which justify a visit (or many). You might remember the excellent 2005–6 show of the BM’s French Drawings: Clouet to Seurat held first at the Met in New York, with a beautiful catalogue by Perrin Stein, which set expectations at a very high level indeed, but of course the scope of that was broader than portraiture. But the new exhibition raises some questions which puzzle: about the BM’s holdings, about the presentation of drawings in exhibitions, and about what an exhibition actually is, as opposed to a group of drawings on show.

The website tells us that the drawings are “selected from the Museum’s unparalleled collection”: the BM drawings collection is of course unquestionably world class in many ways, but as this exhibition demonstrates, its holdings of French portrait drawings are not in the league of say the Louvre.

In the exhibition’s favour is a coherent theme and manageable size. Some 47 drawings are included, which I think is a far better number than so many exhibitions where one is exhausted half way through. The focus on portraiture, rather than drawing in general, is not restrictive in period: “from Clouet to Courbet” is both alliterative and prosodic, but short-changes the show by half a century: the exquisite drawing by Émile Friant, above, dates from 1900, and is one of the unexpected delights. And I welcome the curator’s chronological arrangement, although several labels caused some tut-tutting: not simply because of the their inexact placement among the objects, but because some pictures (such as the curious Debucourt, which is decidedly dix-huitième) seem to be in the wrong grouping. The most alarming gear-change was the juxtaposition of the 1793 Isabey sheet (surely drawing its inspiration from French artists such as J A M Lemoine rather than Gainsborough or Reynolds) with one by Marcellin Desboutin, separated by a few inches of space, and a century of time.

I can see how this happened, which brings me to one of the problems at the heart of this show: Room 90 itself. The display cabinets which occupy three sides impose the severest constraints on the curator. They separate the viewer from the drawings (what a delight when we finally get to see the four Carmontelles which are framed and hung vertically on the fourth wall, with no physical barrier – and provide both colour and a partial antidote to the rococo vacuum I mention above), and they create impossible lighting problems. The extremely low light levels I found made it impossible to examine the drawings properly. I understand the need for conservation, but I’d rather the show were properly lit and ran for one month rather than five when I can’t see it properly. And I’d suggest that an evening for pensioners with stronger lighting would be a simple but real contribution to disability inclusion.

But the lighting problems are not just about levels: the dazzling reflections are probably an insoluble consequence of the display cases. The horizontal tables in the middle of the room are no better: the shine of the graphite on the Nanteuils is inescapable.

The cases reflect a type of thinking about display which I believe is outdated and in need of reconsideration. It is of course unlikely that any decorative arrangement (or even choice of typeface for wall texts and labels) will be equally suited to both Maggi Hambling and old master drawings. By pinning mounted but unframed sheets to inclined interiors of fixed cabinets the Museum not only economises on exhibition costs, but complies with its own I suspect deeply held conviction that drawings belong in boxes of uniform sizes like stamp collections. Once acquired they are to be removed from frames and given severe, off-white museum board mounts (fortunately this hasn’t been done to the Isabey). Nothing could be more antithetical to the Rococo in particular.

That brings me to perhaps the greatest weakness in the exhibition. Half-way along the south wall we reach (c.1720) two lovely Watteau drawings (one surely isn’t a portrait, but I only make that point because a glaring omission, on precisely those grounds, is the BM’s fabulous Lemoyne pastel, the star of the 2005 show), and then, only one sheet in between, we reach a Trinquesse sanguine counterproof from c.1770. (Before I get taken too far away by that question, let me note that the rest of the show has some fantastic nineteenth-century drawings: for example, the superb Lafitte sheet, overshadowed only by its neighbour, Ingres’s portrait of Sir John Hay and his sister. It steals the show, even though I’m not sure that either sibling is actually carrying flowers as the label states: they sport them – attached to their clothing – as the collection database correctly has.)

Virtually the entire reign of Louis XV is represented by that sheet. And it is not by Boucher, Chardin, Greuze, Fragonard, La Tour, Coypel, Portail, Saint-Aubin, Van Loo or the many other great French draughtsmen of the Rococo who are simply not represented in the show at all. Nor (in my opinion) is it by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau despite it being labelled as such. It is a weak, not terribly well preserved portrait drawing which we are told was “probably” made “as a preliminary sitting for a pastel portrait.” But that isn’t how Perronneau worked, and that should have raised alarm bells. The drawing was bought in 1927 no doubt as by Perronneau, and presumably this hasn’t been thought about since. But (although not cited in the BM online catalogue) I think it is probably the sheet that was mentioned in the old Perronneau catalogue raisonné by Vaillat & Ratouis de Limay, where a footnote on p.81 of the first 1909 edition states: “Le portrait au crayon noir et à la pierre d’Italie de la collection de M. Wauters, est un peu endommagé; on n’en peut juger qu’imparfaitement.” But in the 1923 edition the note and any reference to the drawing is omitted, nor does it appear in Dominque d’Arnoult’s 2014 catalogue as far as I can see.

Which brings me to the third issue. The show is uncatalogued. Seven of the sheets were in the 2005 exhibition, and their exemplary catalogue entries are worth rereading. Of course I understand fully why the economics of book production prohibit printing a catalogue to the BM’s high production standards, but there are plenty of simple, virtually costless things that could be done with the website. A straightforward listing of all the exhibits, including the label texts with links to the BM’s online collections database, would be an enormous step forward (have I simply missed it?) – although some of those entries could usefully be improved.

The pedant in me (never far from the surface in any lexicographer) is tempted to list points that will interest no one else – for example the charming Cochin portrait of Chardin, juxtaposed with its print, properly identifying the subject as “Jean Siméon Chardin”: but underneath the curator labels it “Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin”: thus “on l’a souvent prénommé à tort” as Pierre Rosenberg noted in his 1979 Chardin exhibition catalogue.

But what really would be helpful is more about the drawings. The descriptions of media, for example, could be considerably expanded: how the early Clouet portraits achieved such a range of colour using only black and white chalk is a fascinating topic – and would perhaps merit a technical display in one of the mid-room cabinets that would seem to me rather more relevant than some of the coins, medals and other objects chosen from other BM departments whose links with the show seemed at best tangential. (No doubt some quiz programme could stump most people by asking: where do you find Marie-Antoinette and Franz Liszt together and why?)

But let me take just one example to illustrate how I think a little more information could enhance our enjoyment of these drawings. There is a fine plumbago drawing by Nanteuil of Rollin Burin de La Grange. The caption tells us:

This preparatory drawing for a print dates from only three years after [Nanteuil’s] arrival in Paris, but shows that he was already working for some of the most powerful men in France. Rolin Burin was Grand Audiencier, the chief official of the chancery, who was responsible for reviewing petitions, appointments and permissions before passing them on to the King. Yet Nanteuil represents Burin without any attributes of his high status, instead creating a warm and affable portrait of his sitter.

The collections database credits a researcher with identifying the entry for the sitter in d’Hozier (I’m not quite sure how Audrey Adamczak missed this in her catalogue raisonné where the drawing appears as no. 23, although her book is ignored by the BM database), and transcribes the inscription as “forori Amantissime Rol. Burin/ D.D. Dicat[qz?]./ 1650.” (sic, at the time of writing this post: I hope it will be changed by the time you read it).

But there are numerous things these entries don’t explain. It is unimportant that there were several grands audienciers, or that they presented documents to the chancelier, not the king, or even that Nanteuil portrayed most of his sitters without the trappings of high office (unless they had the Saint-Esprit, whose inclusion was mandatory) – since at the date this portrait was done, Burin wasn’t a grand audiencier, or even a secrétaire du roi. Those offices were acquired later, with the funds he continued to embezzle from the offices he did hold, those of maître des courriers de la généralité de Bretagne et du bureau général des dépêches de la poste de Paris. In breach of repeated judicial decrees, Burin notoriously charged money for private use of the royal postal service.

This drawing was not (as far as we know) engraved, or intended to be such. It was a presentation drawing. The explanation (and for me a good part of the delight in the sheet) rests in the faultily transcribed inscription: for it is dedicated to Burin’s dearest sister [sorori, not forori; D D Dicatq with a terminal squiggle, not a z, stands for Dat, donat, dicatque, or sometimes Donum dat, dicatque with essentially the same meaning: Rol. Burin gives, presents and dedicates to his most beloved sister]. And there were two sisters (although I think Hilliard Goldfarb is mistaken in translating sorori in the plural: each dedication is just to one of them): there is a second, identical drawing, perhaps in slightly better condition, with exactly the same inscription, in the Horvitz collection in Boston. This is what an exhibition should tell us, whether in a label or by a link. Otherwise our engagement with these extraordinary, beautiful objects is liable to be superficial.

Postscript – 29 September 2016

If you’re reading this post now, to avoid confusion, I should explain that a number of the labels and collections database entries have now been changed. My post refers to those displayed at the opening of the show.

From → Art history

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