The Clark Art Institute’s latest exhibit, “Promenades on Paper: 18th Century French Drawings from the Bibliotheque de France,” is currently on view now through March 12th.
Featuring over 80 selected works, many of which are on display for the first time, “Promenades on Paper” looks to expand viewers’ understanding of art and its purpose during 18th century France. The works include drawings depicting historic events, costume design, and even flora and fauna.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Clark Art Institute’s latest exhibit, “Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliotheque de France” looks to expand viewer’s understanding of art and its purpose during 18th century France. “Promenades on Paper” features over 80 drawings which depict historic events, costume design, and flora and fauna, many of which are on display for the first time.
I spoke with curatorial fellow Sara Grandin to hear more about the exhibit.
Sarah Grandin, Clark Art Institute: The director of the Clark Art Institute, Olivier Millet, is longtime friends with the deputy director of the Prints and Photography Department at the French National Library, Corinne Le Bitouzé.
And over a dinner, I think around 2018, they hatched this plan, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to feature drawings from the French National Library, which are bizarrely very little studied and little known?” And because there are millions of work at the BNF — I use the term BNF, I’m talking about the French National Library — because they speak in terms of kilometers of books and maps and prints and drawings and photographs, there was just a lot to uncover and a lot to discover.
Zydalis Bauer: And so, there’s over 80 works in this exhibition at The Clark, and it looks to expand our understanding of drawing as a tool of documentation. And so through this lens, what do we learn about life in 18th century France?
Sarah Grandin: Drawing was not merely the tool — or sort of exclusively the tool of professional artists such as painters, sculptors and architects in 18th century France. It also became a practice and a tool for engineers and for amateurs, for art lovers, for for children, for scientists.
And so, because of this and because of the collecting practices of the BNF, which wasn’t interested exclusively in sort of masterpieces by the greatest artists of of of art history, they were interested in images that served a sort of educational and documentary purpose. And because of that, we get a really wide variety of of drawings at our disposal.
So, we have a couple of really interesting examples in the exhibition that show drawing’s capacity to document things and events, because of course this is before the advent of photography, so you couldn’t just pick up a camera if you wanted to document something, you had to draw it yourself.
And so, there’s an entire portion of the exhibition dedicated to drawing’s function in this regard. A favorite of mine is a drawing by Charles Parocell from 1727, beautifully rendered in different media, in red chalk, black chalk, pen and ink; and it captures the precise moment that the Turkish ambassador Mehmed Effendi, steps on to the stairs of the Artillery Palace, which has since been demolished, which no longer exists. He was about to meet with the 11-year-old Louis XV, to negotiate the release of enslaved Ottoman citizens who are being held on galleys in the French Mediterranean.
So, you have this huge historical event, and this is the only image we have that documents this precise moment in the diplomatic visit, because this drawing was supposed to serve as a preparatory drawing for a tapestry that was never made.
So, all we have is this drawing. So, it’s incredibly precious in the way that it captures an event that is sort of so important to history.
Zydalis Bauer: And, you know, you’re speaking to the variety that exists within this collection. And I mean, we’re talking about historical events, like you just mentioned — drawings for costume design, flora and fauna. You were hands on in visiting France to pick some of these drawings.
So, what was it that you were looking for? What was your process in selecting these works?
Sarah Grandin: That’s such a great question!
And yeah, it’s definitely interesting, in the case of this exhibition, to learn a little bit about what went on behind the scenes, because it’s atypical. Usually a curator — an exhibition, it might focus on a particular artist or a particular school or a theme of some kind. And we had sort of an opposite process where we thought, “Okay, well, what drawings — what are the drawings? Where are they? What are the best ones, the most visually captivating or the most accomplished?”
So, we were looking for drawings that would be beautiful, that were in good condition, that would be visually enticing to look at, that would be worth all of the effort of study and transporting them across the Atlantic and getting them matted and framed and looked at by conservators.
So, we were looking for drawings by known and appreciated artists. So, I mean, 18th century France gets off the beaten track for a lot of people, even those who really love art history. But we’re talking about names like Joan Honoré, Fragonard, François Boucher, Jean Etienne Leotard. Great architects and great draftsmen such as Boulay and Laco.
But the thing that happened through our through our sifting through boxes and albums that were often organized by geography or subject matter or theme or by the history of the collection, is that all of these drawings emerged about which we knew absolutely nothing.
Sarah Grandin: And that often meant that we didn’t know who the artist was.
So, we have drawings by unknown artists, unknown makers in this exhibition, which is kind of unusual. And we also have drawings by artists about whom we knew almost nothing before this exhibition and before we started doing research on the drawings.
So, I mean, that gets to me to that gets me to two of my absolute favorite drawings in this exhibition by a woman named Emilie Bonieu. And, one of the drawings is of a hunk of this mineral specimen. The other is of these beautiful shells produced in gouache on vellum, which is prepared calfskin.
And we sent colleagues into the French National Archives to recover her after-death inventory, to correctly establish her life dates, learn more about her life and her artistic practice. So, through our attention to these beautiful drawings, we also sort of expanded the roster of of makers to whom we might want to turn our attention as art historians in the future.
Zydalis Bauer: One thing that I was reading that interested me in this exhibit is that it showcases the evolution of drawing outside of that academic setting. So, can you speak to that transition about different tools and methods that were used in order to make art happen outside of academia?
Sarah Grandin: Yes. So, we begin the exhibition with what I kind of like to refer to it as “bait,” this really, really stunning academic drawing of a male nude by Greuze, this really accomplished French painter. And that’s the kind of drawing that students at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture would have produced as part of their study.
So, that’s what we think of when we think of 18th century French drawings, if we’re familiar with the practice. This exhibition shows, indeed, that drawing happened outside of the Louvre, which is where these painters and sculptors were learning how to draw and perfecting their art.
So we have, for example, an entire wall in the exhibition dedicated to drawings by amateurs, including one of my favorite drawings in the exhibition, a drawing by Marie Clotilde de France, who was a princess. And at the age of 14, she visited the print cabinet and she spent the entire afternoon pouring over prints and drawings. And she loved it so much that she apparently had to be teared from the premises, she was kicked out of the library. And afterwards, she gave this drawing that she herself produced, and it was preserved by the keeper of the print cabinet.
Sarah Grandin: And we now have it today, this beautiful landscape drawing that she produced at the age of 14.
So, her facility in drawing exemplifies the fact that noble elite and and sort of royal children were learning how to draw as part of their their sort of regular instruction. And this includes courses with accomplished artists, but they also often studied after prints and drawings.
And so, print became a really important element in the explosion of drawing, collecting, and production in the 18th century. People who wanted to learn how to draw could, could buy drawing manuals, and so we have works in the exhibition that reflect that practice.
And then drawing was, of course, a very important tool for architects, for engineers, for scientists, and also for artists who specialized in the decorative arts.
So, we have an entire panel, sort of entire wall in exhibition that shows drawings that would have been proposed to Louis XV so that he could select new furnishings and new decorative objects such as silver candelabra or carpeted folding screens. So, drawing definitely busted out of the academy and was used in many contexts in the period.