The exhibition entitled French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet opened its doors to the public on 8 September 2016. You can find it in Room 90 of the British Museum and to get there you just need to go up the stairs into the Prints & Drawings area. You turn left only to find that little gem of an exhibition. It’s a relatively a small show with a collection of over 65 portraits by French artists from the Renaissance until the 19th century. The selection is restricted to works from the remarkable collection of the British Museum but there is a vast variety of media; portraits on paper, portrait medals from the late 18th and 19th centuries, portrait lithographs by the printmaker Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), enamels and even an onyx cameo.
The exhibition has on display works that goes beyond Courbet’s period, such as Émile Friant (1863-1932). Although, as the curator of the exhibition Sarah Vowles informed me, “When an exhibition is being put together we have to think about a title which will capture people’s attention and attract them. By calling it ‘Clouet to Courbet’, we suggested the chronological breadth of the show, while also highlighting some of the most striking pieces, including the lead image.”
The order that the works are in place is by chronological arrangement and in context that offers examples of the same date in other forms of media. Thus, each case is devoted to a different theme. There is no emphasis on the frame or the surroundings of the exhibits, the background that was chosen is simple enough and helps the viewer to understand effectively the story that is unfolding. The earliest works are 4 drawings from Jean Clouet and his son François, the first one is from 1535. Clouet was a court artist of Catherine de’Medici and his portrait of her is on display for the first time. The last is a portrait of Marcelle Lender, Paris’s cabaret artist of the 20th century, drawn from by her admirer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In general Sarah’s Vowles goal was for the exhibition to familiarise and to introduce the public to some artists that are less known and to create a chance to see beautiful and rare works.
The exhibition sheds light on an experimental era for the genre and is trying to lead the way for the viewer in order to find an answer to these questions: What is a portrait and its purpose? How did portraits evolve over the centuries? Does a portrait have to show a face? The exhibition explores the way that the drawn portrait was often an informal medium, created for friends and relations of the sitter, rather than the wider public. In some cases portraits were active documents and were updated when needed and in other cases were an ode to another artist’s skills. An example to that is the Portrait of baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi by Pierre Dumonstier II (1625), that shows only the hand of Artemisia as a way to show his admiration to her skills more than her beauty. As Sarah Vowles commented “a portrait can be a representation of part of a person’s body which acts as a representation of the whole”.
Overall is a well organised show that manages to communicate its points across without wearing you down or confuse you. This free exhibition will be on display at the British Museum until January 29, 2017. Meanwhile there will be some talks and presentation from the curator Sarah Vowles on 25 November as well as 11 January 2017.
Vowles, S. (2016) / French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet: Exhibition text. Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/PDF/French_portraits_drawings_04-11-2016.pdf (Accessed:06/11/2016)
Vowles, S. (2016) A curator’s tale. Available at: https://theidlewoman.net/2016/09/05/a-curators-tale/ (Accessed: 05/11/2016).
Vowles, S. (2016) French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet. Available at: https://theidlewoman.net/2016/08/29/french-portrait-drawings-clouet-to-courbet/ (Accessed: 05/11/2016).
Barnet, S. (2005) Writing a Review of an Exhibition Copied from A short guide to writing about art. 8th edn. White Plains, NY, United States: Pearson Education (US).