Tag Archives: France

A Decidedly French Bonfire of the Vanities

If you are collector, then you know how it feels to discover that the object you purchased is a fake, a copy, or a reproduction.  Once, an art dealer friend grew very excited about a painting he bought at an estate sale, thinking he had discovered an original 19th century work for a song, only to be told – by me – that it was in fact a rather so-so copy of a portion of a fresco by the 16th century Venetian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese.  Since then, he tends to gives me a jingle when he is considering purchasing a painting that he is not 100% sure about.

We should of course draw a distinction between the three categories described above, at least insofar as these terms apply to the art world.  A fake is an object created with the intent to deceive.  Copies and reproductions on the other hand, are made for various reasons.  For example, artists whose work was very popular in their own lifetime would sometimes paint copies of their own paintings, or have their assistants do so for them.  Later artists will often copy works by earlier artists, trying to study and understand the techniques that were employed.  Reproductions do not come from the original artist’s studio, but are made through a variety of methods, for the sake of making a popular image available to a wider audience.

So one cannot help but feel some pity for British businessman Martin Lang, who purchased a painting which he believed to be by the prominent Modern artist Marc Chagall.  Not only has a committee of experts in Paris decided that the painting is a fake, but under French law Mr. Lang will probably not get his painting back.  Instead, Chagall’s heirs have the right to insist that the painting be burned in front of a French judge.  As an example of ridiculous French jurisprudence – though I repeat myself – this result is rather unfortunate, to say the least.

However it is so not for the reasons pointed out by art expert and BBC presenter Philip Mould, who in effect unintentionally created this mess for Mr. Lang by sending the painting to Paris.  The issue of whether or not the painting is determined to be genuine now or at a later date is almost beside the point.  It is a pity that Mr. Lang will have to suffer the loss of a bad art investment, but the old warning of “caveat emptor” applies when it comes to all commercial transactions, whether one is buying a home, or a second-hand car, or a (purported) Chagall.  Sometimes there are recourses available to the injured purchaser, and sometimes not.

Rather, the stink to be raised here has to do with the question of property rights in general, and the reasonableness of the remedies available to both parties in this dispute.  In the case of the Chagall estate, the argument is that the existence of a fake dilutes Chagall’s legacy, much in the way that the fellow selling fake Louis Vuitton bags on the pavement outside the Metro station dilutes the value of the LVMH corporation.  Chagall’s reputation as an artist is deemed to suffer as a result, and although no one seems to be mentioning it in the press I have read so far, of course the prices of Chagall works would, in theory, go down as well, thus negatively impacting the income of his estate.  By contrast, all Mr. Lang will lose in this dispute is face, since it is embarrassing to find out you have been swindled, as well as the money he originally plunked down for the painting.

Yet as is usual in French history from 1789 onward, the solution to the dispute is so completely out of proportion with common sense, so ignorant of possible other, more civilized ways of addressing the problem, that it quite rightly makes the Anglo-American mind reel.  In the interest of protecting the property rights of the Chagall estate in France, the French are perfectly happy to violently interfere with the property rights of a man in England, who was acting in good faith.  Surely there must be other ways of making sure that this painting does not mistakenly gain the Chagall imprimatur and negatively impact the Chagall “brand”.

I am not suggesting, necessarily, that one grab a big Sharpie and write “FAKE” all over the back of this picture in permanent ink.  The point I am trying to make is that whether or not this is a Chagall (and assuming, arguendo, that it is not), the penalty imposed on the purchaser of such an item is so extreme as to be outrageous.  The decision on what to do with a fake of this kind ought to be the owner’s, as the bona fide purchaser for value, and not that of a committee located in another country; while the Chagall estate has a legitimate interest in protecting and preserving the intellectual property rights of the artist, the mere existence of a copy of a Chagall painting ought not to automatically consign that piece to the flames.  Such an attitude betrays the fact that the real motivation here is not to protect the integrity of a dead artist’s work, but rather to continue to line the pockets of his heirs, until all residual ownership rights are finally exhausted.

Don’t believe me? The Louvre, among many other museums in France – and indeed as is commonplace throughout the art museum world – is full of paintings which bear labels such as “Attributed To”, or “Circle of” or “After” world-famous, dead artists.  These works are exact copies, near approximations, or variations on the works of other painters, though not believed by experts to come from the hand of those original painters.  Whether the creators of these works intended them to be fakes, copies, or reproductions, we do not know.  Yet they continue to hang on the walls, rather than go to the scrap heap, because no one is complaining about them being a source of lost revenue.

Using the line of thinking employed here under French law, when Mr. Lang’s “Chagall” is taken out and burned – presumably on the Place de la Concorde, where countless other French legal injustices have taken place – I challenge French art institutions to be honest, bring out their own fakes, and burn them as well.  No more fake Leonardos, no more pseudo-Rubens, heave another mock-Poussin on the fire, boys. Let’s just have a big bonfire of French vanity for all to enjoy, and toast our marshmallows over the demise of common-sense property rights in jurisprudence.

The painting in question.

The painting in question, supposedly by Marc Chagall c. 1909-1910

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17th Century Masterpiece Discovered at the Hotel Ritz in Paris

There has always been something very special indeed about the Hotel Ritz in Paris.  Whether it was Hemingway and Fitzgerald getting plastered and arguing in the bar, or Count Esterházy bringing in a troupe of Hungarian gypsy musicians to serenade him and his dinner guests – a moment lovingly referenced in the woefully under-appreciated Audrey Hepburn/Gary Cooper classic “Love in the Afternoon” – this grandest of grand hotels has played host to numerous famous people and important events.  The Nazis took over the Ritz as the headquarters for the Luftwaffe in World War II, while Princess Diana dined at the hotel just before the car crash which took her life.

The Ritz closed in August for a two-year complete renovation, and as part of this many of the historic rooms were temporarily emptied of their fine French furnishings.  One of these was the suite where the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel lived for over three decades.  In the process of cleaning out her former living space, thanks to the keen eye of a French art historian who had been viewing the rooms before their closure, the hotel has managed to bring about the re-discovery of a major work of Baroque painting.

Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was the preferred court painter of Louis XIV; in fact the Sun King referred to Le Brun as “the greatest French artist of all time.”  His first royal commission so pleased the king that he raised Le Brun to the nobility, and put him in charge of all decoration in the royal residences.  The famous “Hall of Mirrors” at the Palace of Versailles for example, is covered in his work.  Le Brun was appointed the director of the newly-established royal academy of painting and sculpture, which later became known as the “Academie des Beaux-Arts”, and laid the foundation for the academic tradition in French art for nearly three centuries.

The work which hung unnoticed at the Ritz appears to be Le Brun’s depiction of the Trojan princess Polyxena, who was executed by the Greeks for complicity in the death of the hero Achilles.  If you remember your histories of the Trojan Wars, one retelling of the story is that Achilles made the mistake of letting Polyxena, whom he had fallen in love with, learn the secret of his vulnerable heel.  Her brother Paris later used this knowledge to kill the Greek hero with a poisoned arrow.

The painting is signed with Le Brun’s initials and dated 1647, which places it prior to his coming into the service of Louis XIV.  As such it is an important example of the younger Le Brun absorbing the lessons of the painters whom he studied in Italy during a three-year-long stay there, including the High Renaissance master Raphael, and his own countryman Poussin.  Taking what he had learned from these, Le Brun adding greater exuberance and theatricality to his own, highly fluid style, which perfectly exemplified the more emotional and dramatic style of the Baroque.

Le Brun’s re-discovered masterpiece is set to be auctioned at Christie’s with what to me sounds like a rather low pre-sale estimate of half a million euros.  While it is a large work, it is not nearly the size of the absolutely gigantic canvases which Le Brun was able to execute on behalf of the Sun King later in his career.  So should you have a spare million or two sitting around, gentle reader, owning a painting of this quality, formerly the property of the most famous hotel in the world, and which Chanel herself probably looked at every day, would not be a bad investment.

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“The Sacrifice of Polyxena” by Charles Le Brun (1647)
Hotel Ritz, Paris

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Paris When It Glows

American painter Rodgers Naylor’s new exhibition at Susan Calloway Fine Art here in Georgetown opened this past Saturday evening, and I was fortunate enough to attend the opening reception with a group of friends. I was impressed by Naylor’s understanding of late afternoon light, as well as his technique and use of unexpected color choices to create certain elements of his painting. The show, which runs through April 21st, is definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the nation’s capital over the coming weeks, particularly because it looks as though most of the paintings have already sold, and will be disappearing into private collections for the next 50-odd years.

“A Journey From Paris To The South” is a collection of oils by native Washingtonian/Colorado resident Rodgers Naylor, recalling his travels through France last year. Picturing scenes from the French capital, as well as the countryside of places like Burgundy and Provence, the show is very easy to like. From the moment you approach the gallery on Wisconsin Avenue, you are put in the mood of what you are about to see by the display in the large bay window in the front of the building, which features a large canvas of Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre, alongside several smaller works.

Naylor clearly enjoys painting views of the French countryside, such a group of hay bales that look like sheep in a field, or its rolling geography – excuse me, “terroir” – from which fine French wine comes.  However he also enjoys painting Parisian cityscapes, such as the dark waters of the Seine around a sunken bridge pier, or a bistro along one of Haussmann’s boulevards opening up for that evening’s diners.  There is a variety of work on show that will appeal to any collector’s individual tastes and preferences with respect to landscape painting.

This is a good opportunity to describe how reproductions in a book, or even online, never teach us as much about a work of art as does up-close, in person examination, and why I always want to encourage my readers to go to galleries or museums and take a look at art in person, to understand and appreciate how it is made. For example in this exhibition, I was struck by Naylor’s technique with respect to how he achieves a sense of motion, which does not necessarily “read” when one is looking at one of his pictures online. In portraying a moving vehicle, Naylor paints a square of pale, almost margarine yellow, and pulls away from it, creating an impression of moving light without actually creating streaks: a quite clever and effective way of achieving this effect.

A related, unusual technique of Naylor’s is demonstrated in how he forms the branches and leaves of a tree or a vine. Most of us if asked to draw something like a shrub would probably draw some curvy, lumpy thing on a stick.  The end result would look almost inevitably more like a clump of broccoli, rather than a large plant.

Instead of painting in such a curvilinear and literal way, however, Naylor essentially paints a series of squares. He then runs these into one another to create leaves, branches, and ultimately the form of the tree, vine, etc. that he is representing. Again, this is something that one cannot appreciate in an online photograph or exhibition catalogue, but when you are able to look at the painting up close and realize how it was done, you realize that the painter has thought about how to create a realistic effect, without trying to reproduce exactly what one sees with the naked eye.

In addition, Naylor’s color choices are often very inventive indeed, and must be seen at close quarters to be understood. In painting a scene at sunset for example, he will use a rather bright purple or pink that one does not necessarily notice at first. Only on further investigation does one realize that the dark portions of his trees are full of lilac and lavender, or the corners of his buildings have fuchsia streaks along them.

And my goodness, does Naylor love light. He is particularly adept at contrasts of light and shadow in late afternoon, just before sunset, where one can “see” his use of a bright, truly cheerful use of the color orange – he even uses a rather bright orange in his signature, as one of my companions for the opening pointed out.  In his views of vineyards and fields, the various oranges employed make you want to go spend some time in the sun enjoying the harvest, or traveling along an allée of trees from one village to the next.  While on the whole I found his paintings to succeed better when the scale of the people portrayed within them were kept smaller, or more obscured, he is a man who clearly enjoys being outside in the fresh air observing both man and nature as they go about their business, and he wants others to enjoy observing this with him.

To be able to spend an evening looking at bright and cheerful pictures of Paris and the French countryside, on an otherwise gloomy and rainy evening in early Spring, was a pleasure in and of itself. Especially in his smaller paintings, Naylor evokes that sense of the personal and intimate which one finds in the smaller-scale work of artists such as Renoux, where large spaces are represented on a small scale.  In both large and small formats, he delights the eye with an explosion of cheerful color and interesting technique all his own, and hopefully my readers in the Washington area will get the chance to enjoy it for themselves.


Patrons at the opening on Friday evening

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Challenging Your Abilities: What We Can Learn from Monsieur Falconet

Today is the birthday of the great French Rococo sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791), an artist who was particularly beloved of Madame du Pompadour, one of the mistresses of Louis XV. Arguably Falconet’s most famous sculpture is the impressive equestrian monument dedicated to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and nicknamed “The Bronze Horseman”. The monument was completed in 1782, but gained its descriptive nickname in 1833, as a result of the popularity of a narrative poem about the statue coming to life, written by one of Russia’s greatest writers, Alexander Pushkin. Falconet’s birthday is a good occasion for us to learn a bit more about his work, but more importantly to recall that sometimes we need to be challenged in our careers and in our personal lives, to achieve more than we ourselves and indeed others believe us capable of achieving.

Before he caught the attention of the Empress Catherine the Great, who commissioned the monument to her predecessor, Falconet had carved several sculptures of the kind of fanciful and erotic variety which the decadent court of Louis XV loved. Typically his work featured little putti – the pagan version of cherubs – or nymphs in various stages of undress, and often approached what I have referred to in a previous post as porn for rich people. That being said, if you are a fellow male I challenge you not to be discomforted by his 1745 sculpture of the Greek myth of Milo of Croton in The Louvre.

In 1757 Falconet was placed in charge of the sculpture department of the legendary French royal porcelain factory at Sèvres, and probably would have remained there creating small-scale aristocratic bric-a-brac for the dinner tables and sideboards of French châteaux alongside the occasional piece of garden sculpture for the rest of his life. However the French philosopher Diderot recommended his work to his friend and patroness Catherine the Great who, despite the somewhat silly nature of Falconet’s work, obviously saw something in his abilities that the artist himself did not. Falconet traveled to Russia in 1766, and worked on the monument to Peter the Great for twelve years before he returned to France after a falling out with the Empress. The final installation of the piece on its massive plinth – often believed to be the largest single piece of rock ever moved by human beings before the advent of modern machinery – only came in 1782.

The sculpture shows the Emperor, seated on a rearing horse that is trampling a serpent, while Peter points toward the River Neva which runs through St. Petersburg. Various interpretations have been made of the symbolism employed in the work, but I always think of how Peter was determined to crush the backwards provincialism of the Russians, and re-orient his people toward Europe. The sculptor is showing a dynamic, active ruler, rather than one seated in solemn majesty on a throne, who is thrusting his nation into a more modern world – whether it wants to be a part of it or not.

Building a brand new capital out of nothing, in the middle of a swampy marsh, was one of Peter’s ways of trying to create a new identity for his people, and it was an idea later emulated in part by George Washington in building this country’s capital, which was also placed on a drained swamp. I like to think that in this monument, the Emperor is pointing out a spot along the mucky banks of the marshland and saying, “Here’s where we going to build it, lads.” Falconet has, of course, not provided accompanying sculptures of courtiers and retainers looking at each other with bewilderment and rolling their eyes.

After returning to France, Falconet was only able to work for a few more years before suffering a stroke which left him unable to sculpt. He then spent the rest of his life writing about art theory and technique, augmenting works he had already published and which were widely read in his own lifetime. One of his ideas that began to take hold in the artistic community was that contemporary artists – “contemporary” being those working in his own day, of course – did not have to consider themselves second-fiddle to the artists of the past, and that great art equal to or better than that produced by the Greeks and Romans was being produced in Falconet’s own day. It is interesting that despite the wealth and opportunities available to him, unlike most artists of the 18th century Falconet never saw the need to make the Grand Tour of Italy and Greece to see ancient works of art; he thought that beautiful art could be created wherever you happened to be, so long as you had talent and worked hard.

Although Falconet and Catherine the Great ultimately had a parting of the ways, and he was not able to see his most famous work installed and completed, the sculpture that he created for her has become perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city of St. Petersburg. It has been lovingly protected by generations of Russians from attacks by invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, even after the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Soviet state. The impact this single work of art has made on the collective Russian psyche cannot be overestimated, from poets like Pushkin to composers, filmmakers, painters, and photographers, who are perennially drawn to it.

And yet despite the centuries of admiration for this a massive, tremendously impressive piece of public sculpture, which struck so profound a chord with the Russian people, what to me is even more interesting is that this is the work of someone whom no one could reasonably have expected to produce something like it. Falconet was a man who more or less became famous for creating very personal and intimate statues and figurines of naked ladies getting out of the bathtub. That he could come up with something so powerful as this would be analogous to a popular sitcom writer suddenly coming out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as searing as the work of Edward Albee or Arthur Miller.

As the saying goes, you never know what you can do until you try. In the case of Falconet, two of the most powerful people of the 18th century – one an influential philosopher, the other an absolute monarch – took an interest in him and gave him a chance to do something greater than perhaps even he believed himself capable of achieving. Not all of us will be so lucky as to have friends and contacts in such august circles, of course, but the lesson to be learned is still the same: challenging yourself to take your talents and abilities in a direction that you have never tried before, is certainly worth the attempt. You have no idea what wonders may result.


“Monument to Peter the Great” aka “The Bronze Horseman”
by Etienne-Maurice Falconet (completed 1782)
Senate Square, St. Petersburg, Russia

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Bad Taste Old and New at Versailles

Last evening I watched a piece on France24 about the annual summer contemporary art show at the Palace of Versailles. In the gardens and inside of the château itself, various pieces of contemporary art are juxtaposed with the splendid rooms and vistas created for the Bourbons, who of course were turned out of their home during the French Revolution. The reporter went through the palace and stopped to ask several visitors what they thought of the contemporary art installations. Several visitors – all French – said they enjoyed the pieces, which were displayed in and around the grand residence of Louis XIV and his descendants.

However one visitor – clearly an American, and one possessing more than a little common sense – said she was appalled. “I haven’t liked any of it,” the lady commented, as we were shown a shot of a glass cabinet containing an installation piece of what appeared to be bandages and crutches. She noted that while some of the art on display might not be bad in the proper setting, what annoyed her most was that it was blocking many of the interior views of the magnificent, historic rooms of the palace which she and others had come to see.

This regrettable practice of placing the detritus of diseased minds in the home of the Sun King began in 2008 under the director of the palace museum, Jean-Jacques Aillagon: a man of many words and little taste. When interviewed by the France24 reporter, M. Aillagon repeatedly stated, in a parrot-like justification of the exhibition: “Art is always art,” presumably because sometimes the viewer may mistake art for being his breakfast, or a rubbish tip. M. Aillagon went on to explain that in displaying art, “we ask questions about form, material, and the artist’s perspective and intelligence.”

This is all nonsense, of course.

Rather than questioning the artist’s intelligence in such displays, I question that of M. Aillagon. You can read more about his poor taste and clichéd, art-speak blatherings in this interview. [WARNING: Some of the art described in the interview is a bit graphic.] He is clearly a figure who should be held up for public ridicule and dismissed from his post.

That being said, let not the rabidly conservative or monarchist among my readers think that my rejection of M. Aillagon’s efforts stems from a belief that Versailles itself is such a wonderful thing: it is not. It is, in fact, a monstrosity, and one of the tackiest, megalomaniacal, and overwrought buildings ever constructed. It has become the model for nouveaux-riches the world over, and for good reason, because it is simply too much.

Indeed, when we consider much of the self-promotional and titillating art commissioned for Versailles, I have to disagree with Prince Sixte-Henri de Bourbon-Parme, one of a number of French aristocrats who have tried to stop these shows at the château through the court system over the years. Most contemporary art which is displayed in shows such as this is rubbish. Yet ironically, most of it is also self-promotional and titillating,
in keeping with the attitudes of those who built and decorated Versailles in the first place.

As a matter of fact, I found myself surprised to be agreeing with American artist Jeff Koons – whose work I cannot abide – during the course of last night’s program. In an interview with the France24 reporter, Koons mentioned his inspiration for the pieces he showed there, when the first Versailles contemporary art exhibition opened in 2008. He thought about Louis XIV waking up in the morning, commanding his staff to build him some sort of giant, kitschy folly, and when he would come home from hunting that evening, there it would be. Those of you who have read books like Nancy Mitford’s classic, superbly researched and illustrated “The Sun King”, or seen films such as “Vatel”, will recognize that as much as one may not like Koons’ art, he certainly got into the spirit of the thing.

The real failure here is that of treating Versailles as if it is some sort of blank canvas, which it is not. It is a place crammed with history, and one which has nothing to do with Japanese manga or clunky malformations of scrap steel. One would have thought that the French would have better taste and a better appreciation of their own history, but of course when you place the dog in charge of the birdcage, this is what happens.

Therefore, please: let us leave the rubbish art to the rubbish art venues, like the Pompidou, and to those who want to see such things, and leave the Bourbons to the Bourbons, and to those who want to get some sense of the world they lived in.

Is it contemporary art, or is it curbside collection day at Versailles?

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