Artisans & Kings: Selected Treasures From the Louvre

Denver Art Museum

For its first big extravaganza of the fall, the Denver Art Museum will unveil Artisans & Kings: Selected Treasures From the Louvre on October 5 in the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Bringing the show to Denver was a smart move, as it's guaranteed to have broad popular appeal. You don't have to know much about art to have heard of the Louvre — the "Mona Lisa" is there, for heaven's sakes. But be warned: The iconic painting didn't make the trip, and neither did any of the Louvre's other famous works.

Instead, a team of curators representing painting, sculpture, drawing, tapestries and decorative art opened up the French museum's cabinets and storerooms and selected pieces that had been in the private collections of French nobility — in particular, kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI and their families. (The "Mona Lisa" once belonged to Francois I.)

"The Infanta Margarita," by Velázquez, oil on canvas.
"The Infanta Margarita," by Velázquez, oil on canvas.

To some extent, these royal collections formed the foundation of the Louvre's holdings when it opened in 1793, after the French Revolution. But much of the royal collections were lost shortly thereafter to theft, vandalism and sale, especially things that were easy to convert to currency, such as objects made of silver or tapestries woven with gold threads. That's why many of the pieces in Artisans & Kings are things that weren't in the Louvre at that time and only made their way there recently, some as late as 2002.

Co-sponsored by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the first stop on its two-city tour, the exhibit was originally conceived as two separate offerings: Artisans & Kings, made up of an array of fine and decorative art, and The King's Drawings, which was, as expected, a drawing show. But the two were recast in Denver into a single exhibit by DAM deputy director Timothy Standring (who is also the Gates Foundation curator of painting and sculpture) and Mellora McDermott-Lewis, director of the museum's education department and master teacher for European and American art.

It was an awkward move, because in any case, the show needed to be bifurcated in two separate sets of galleries — and on two different floors, no less.

Standring and McDermott-Lewis are notorious for their brainstorming sessions, and the ones for Artisans & Kings must have been something. Not only did the curators blend the two original shows, but they then sliced and diced the combined material according to four new organizational themes: "Collections of Kings," "Politics of Style," "Trappings of Power" and "Crafting a Lifestyle." By layering these additional narratives on top of the original, however, they created a situation in which there is no apparent logic to the exhibition, and it becomes nothing more than an array of objects each telling its own related or unrelated story.

Artisans & Kings begins on the museum's second level, in the Anschutz Gallery, where the focus is on the luxurious life of the French nobility. This section is dominated by decorative art in the form of furniture, ceramics and metalwork.

The French didn't invent the idea of luxury goods, but they did excel at producing them, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the abolition of the monarchy. This period saw several stylistic developments and aesthetic changes — from the baroque era through the rococo to neo-classicism — that reveal shifts in aristocratic taste. Unfortunately, these narratives have been sacrificed in the DAM exhibit in favor of those four interchangeable themes, which don't actually mean anything.

Being steeped in modern and contemporary art and not being a scholar of this period, I found it impossible to understand the relationship between the baroque, rococo and neo-classical, or to really get any kind of big-picture view of the period surveyed.

But certain things do emerge. First and foremost are the cosmopolitan tastes of the French kings, in particular the way they simultaneously embraced Italian and Chinese sensibilities while encouraging French artisans to produce homegrown versions. Both Italian and Chinese approaches are seen in important ceramics installed in the Anschutz, which, from my point of view, are the real eye-dazzlers in this part of the exhibit.

Of particular interest are two monumental busts on pedestals in tin-glazed faience that are undeniably Italianate. The spectacular ceramic sculptures are two of four by Nicolas Fouquay that personify the seasons; the ones here represent fall and winter.

Then there's a pair of chinoiserie "Pots-Pourris" made by the Sèvres porcelain factory early in its history (it was founded in 1756) that show off a high level of porcelain and gilding craft. The pagoda-shaped vessels were designed with grills accented in gold to allow the fragrance of flower petals and citrus skins to escape and permeate the air, masking unpleasant odors in a time when bathing was rare.

Even more stunning than the "Pots-Pourris" is the lidded vase with gilt-bronze mounts in the form of base and handles, also made by Sèvres. Aesthetically, it combines a number of different sensibilities. The double gourd shape has an Asian feel, as do the tiny gold lines that cover it, suggesting cloisonné. But the motifs — cherubs that surround the central medallion of a female nude, and goats' heads whose horns serve as the vessel's handles — are either Italian or Roman. This neo-classical piece, done in 1769-1770, exhibits the highest standard of technical accomplishment imaginable.

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