press release

Exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Louvre, Paris, the Royal Academy of Arts, London (3 February to 20 April 2007) and the Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York (18 May to 10 September 2007).

Wearing black silk wristbands, lace flounces and a powdered wig, Mrs Addington is sitting boyishly astride a Chippendale chair, with a coy finger to her lip. The first of its kind to show a casually posed woman with a come-hither look, this astonishing portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds in London in 1771 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) perverts the aristocratic codes of representation. The model could only be an actress…

Bringing face-to-face some 140 paintings and sculptures from public and private collections in Europe and America, the exhibition tries to catch the moment between public and private worlds when other rules of portraiture emerge. Between 1770 and 1830, although very much in vogue in England and America, the painted portrait was still a minor genre in the hierarchy established in France by the Academy, placed after history painting. Nonetheless, like sculpted portraits, it flourished in the West in response to a strong public and private demand. Far from staying within the traditional codes dictated by the desire for pomp and prestige, the art of portrait painting enjoyed unprecedented popularity and gradually prevailed as the modern genre par excellence. After the recent success of monograph exhibitions on the great masters of portraiture, Goya, Houdon, Canova, David or Ingres, this exhibition offers an international panorama of the subject for the first time.

In a broad movement which swept through the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the Empire as far as Romanticism, portraiture ceased to be an upper class prerogative and spread to other social groups, or at least to the middle-class. It was used to celebrate great men and commemorate their virtues. Pantheons were created in Rome, Paris, London (Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral) or near Ratisbone (Walhalla) and filled with the busts of kings, military heroes and revolutionaries, all in a national spirit.

In this period when the idea of celebrity was born, the witnesses of an open society – from the writer to the opera singer, who reigned over fashion – also claimed their right to have their portraits painted. The actress Sophie Arnould had a series of busts made to give her admirers. Privately commissioned portraits were increasingly shown in public exhibitions (particularly in the Salon, in France) at the risk of being rejected by the public: “What is tedious and sometimes revolting is to find a crowd of busts, portraits of anonymous men […] these faces seem to say: I have paid out of pride to be here on the canvas or in marble,” a contemporary wrote. As it became more democratic, the portrait focused on the model’s psychology, echoing Rousseau’s ideas of the supremacy of nature over social rank. In this perspective, self portraits provided a marvellous laboratory. Portraits of sovereigns recorded the changes occurring over the period: Lawrence’s Pius VII (Windsor Castle, Waterloo Chambers) reveals the tension between eternal power and its human incarnation.

The portrait presented an official image of the head of state as well as subtly staged private or family portraits. So Marie Antoinette, unpopular for meddling in politics, had to multiply pictures of herself as a loving mother which fitted in well with the 18th-century fashion for family values. In an agitated political context, the codes of portraiture used to serve the interests of the new elite were constantly being remodelled by the artists who discovered their ability to influence opinion. From the revolutionary icon of Marat Slain, full of intersecting public and private meanings, through the wealth of Napoleonic iconography to the very bourgeois portrait of Marie Amelie, Queen of the French.

The exhibition unfolds a veritable anthology of the great figures of their time. Goya, Reynolds, Madame Vigée-Le Brun, David, Houdon, Canova, Lawrence, Ingres, Delacroix… the greatest artists have caught the personalities of all their models both in all the splendour of their social position – enormous formats, sumptuous fabrics, immaculate hairstyles – and in the secrecy of their private lives.

only in german

Public portraits, private portraits

Künstler: Joshua Reynolds, Francisco de Goya, Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Antonio Canova, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix ...

04.10.06 - 08.01.07 Grand Palais, Paris
03.02.07 - 20.04.07 Royal Academy of Arts, London
18.05.07 - 10.09.07 Guggenheim Museum - New York