Radical Artistic Changes of the 1800s Reflected in Getty Drawings Exhibition
On View May 1 through July 15, 2001
Los Angeles--"To be able to translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my time as I see them--in a word, to create a living art--this has been my aim," wrote Gustave Courbet in 1855. Subjects once considered inappropriate entered the artistic vocabulary. Idealized landscapes were replaced by naturalistic renderings. Scenes of everyday life became tinged with social criticism. Artists no longer strove to emulate the old masters, and instead subverted tradition to assert their own place in history.
To Create a Living Art: 19th-Century Drawings, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum May 1 through July 15, 2001, demonstrates the constant negotiation between respecting and rejecting artistic tradition that marked the 1800s. This exhibition features approximately 30 drawings, more than half of which were acquired by the Getty in the last five years.
Among the exhibition's highlights are the newly acquired At the Circus: Entering Single File by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Three Young Artists in a Studio by Louis-Leopold Boilly.
These and other recent acquisitions have broadened the Getty's representation of drawings from 19th-century Paris, the undisputed art capital of the time, and added important drawings from the British school. "In addition to the Toulouse-Lautrec and the Boilly, important works by Pierre Paul Prud-hon, Gustave Courbet, Georges Seurat, Pierre Bonnard and Aubrey Beardsley have recently joined the collection and are represented in the exhibition," comments Christine Giviskos, curator of To Create a Living Art. "These works augment the Getty's collection of 19th-century drawings to represent this significant era of artistic change."
The exhibition is organized around the emergence and transformation of four subject matters: history, landscape, the human figure, and contemporary society.
Since the Renaissance, the noblest subjects for art had come from classical literature or the Bible. Artists painted and sculpted ancient gods, saints, and heroes in the hopes of securing lucrative commissions from the Church and royal courts. In France, when the Revolution overthrew the existing regime, artists found new subjects in current events and contemporary literature in order to gain new patrons.
Landscapes as subject matter grew in popularity in 19th-century France, as they were easy to sell in an increasingly commercial art market. As a result, travel to forests and beaches in order to draw outdoors became part of the young artist's course of study, and more French artists specialized in landscapes than ever before.
The drawings in the Getty exhibition also show the changing role and interpretation of the figurative study, known as the académie. Drawing the human figure was the most important and difficult skill an artist could master. These drawings often depicted idealized figures, as students were encouraged to combine their knowledge of the great ancient statues with their observation of the live model. Mastering the académie gave an artist legitimacy in creating historical subjects, the category of painting at the top of the academic hierarchy, followed in descending order by portraits, genre subjects, landscapes, and still-lifes. As this hierarchy was undermined over the course of the 19th century, figure studies became more lifelike.
Figures from contemporary life also emerged as important subject matter in the 19th-century artistic vocabulary. The urbanization and industrialization of the 1800s radically changed the way people lived, worked, and spent their leisure time, and many artists turned their talents to representing new phenomena like the factory and the nightclub. Simultaneously, a modern culture of print media was emerging, providing artists with new vehicles for their work and creating an audience hungry for the most recent images of contemporary life.
The Getty's newest acquisition, At the Circus: Entering Single File by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, exemplifies how the art of drawing was reinvigorated through the new media of magazines, newspapers, and other ephemera, such as playbills and posters. Toulouse-Lautrec rose to fame in the 1890s for his prints and posters of Parisian entertainment. At the Circus comes from a series of 50 drawings of circus subjects that he created while hospitalized for alcoholism and dementia in the spring of 1899. The backstage view of a performer and her horse shuffling into the ring showcases Toulouse-Lautrec's acute description of physical types as well as his brilliant use of color, particularly dazzling in the rendering of the shadows.
While artists questioned almost every traditional aspect of their practice during the 19th century, the importance of drawing remained unchallenged. Artists continued making studies and more finished works on paper, while experimenting with the new techniques and the new subjects that defined the modern art of the 1800s. "Perhaps even more than painting, drawing benefited from an expanded arena for art, thanks to the emerging print media and a new class of consumers interested in viewing and acquiring art," explains Giviskos. The works in the exhibition span the century, demonstrating the artistic distance traveled in an effort to create a living art.
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