Artisans & Kings: Selected Treasures From the Louvre

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.)

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.

In addition to ceramics, furniture-making and interior decoration were also entering a golden age during the time of the last Bourbon kings. The creation of decorator items sold by merchant-manufacturers was all the rage. Sadly, these pieces were sometimes made by chopping up older furniture and salvaging the choice bits. That's what happened in the case of the incredibly elegant "Secretary," by Martin Carlin, made in 1780 using pietra dura panels taken from a piece of seventeenth-century furniture that had been produced in Florence (not something anyone would do today, I can tell you).

There are many other wonderful things in this part of the show, but the last one I'm going to mention is the silver "Platter Cover," by François-Thomas Germain, that takes the form of a mountain adorned with a hunting dog, game and an enormous horn. Eccentrically, the various elements are done in completely different scales. It's a triumph of the more-is-more taste that the French of that time so adored.

To get to the second part of the show, visitors need to walk down a level, via an internal staircase, to the Gallagher Family Gallery, where the drawings are on view along with most of the important paintings. The majority of these works were already old when they were acquired by one of the kings, with the drawings collected initially by Louis XIV, who established the Cabinet du Roi to display them.

In his day — the seventeenth century — drawings were as important as paintings, or even more so; they conveyed the idea that the collector was an intellectual as well as an aesthete, since the most desirable drawings were old ones. In a way, Louis XIV, who purchased entire collections, was simply trying to keep up with the aristocracy of Austria, Germany and Italy, who had substantial drawing collections in their castles and palaces. Louis's successors built on what he started.

The drawings, most by artists unknown to all but specialists in the field, are lovely. Some are finished presentation pieces while others are studies or cartoons, with the latter laid out on grids to facilitate their transfer and enlargement to walls and ceilings.

The paintings include a gorgeous and erotic Titian of a woman in her boudoir, an elegant neo-classical allegorical painting by Poussin, a dark and murky Rembrandt of Saint Matthew, and a signature Velázquez, a portrait of the "Infanta Margarita," who appears in many of his paintings. The chance to see these four works alone is more than worth the entire cost and effort of going to see this exhibit.

And if you've got the means, pick up both catalogues — one devoted to the trappings of royalty, the other to the drawings — because they contain several anecdotes illustrating the relationship between art and the French royalty in its last days. This historic read of the material, hidden in the show itself, is the true organizational narrative underlying the blockbuster Artisans & Kings.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia