Lessons from the Academy
Selections from the permanent collection at the Dahesh Museum

UNLESS YOU ARE A CHARACTER IN LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS’ “TALES OF MANHATTAN—one of those Groton grads who hold forth on French academic painting—you may never have visited the Dahesh Museum. Its collection of academic art of the 19th and early 20th centuries is considered a defunct currency, like czarist bonds. The modernist enterprise has displaced le beau idéal and the assumptions that transmit it. Just last year Joe Queenan, writing in the Times, insisted the Dahesh was full of “uncompromising twaddle” that was “too bad to be true.”

Adolphe-William Bouguereau, The Water Girl

The Dahesh has been with us ten years now. It is time to look at what it offers with our own eyes instead of through the prism of the self-declared superiority of its successors. Mr. Queenan’s disdain originates in the Darwinian view of art history: a myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, progressing ever foreward to the present. We like to believe that art moves on; but, most often, it just moves over. The Dahesh tells its story in opposition to a presumed ladder of ascendancy that has consigned many fine things to storage.

The seedbed of its collection was assembled by Lebanese writer and savant Salim Moussa Achi who took Dahesh (Arabic for “inspiring wonder”) as a pen name. His plan for a museum of 19th century European academic art in Beirut was aborted by Lebanon’s 1975 civil war. Part of France’s colonial empire — La France d’outre mer — until 1943, Lebanon was not an unlikely repository for European painting at the time. Dr. Dahesh sold the collection to associates who brought it with them when they emigrated in 1976. Since then, it has broadened to include a wider range of national academies and acquired some wonderful works.

Throughout the 19th century, the annual Paris Salon was an immense, sensational bazaar of academic painting and sculpture. Fifty thousand people might visit on a Sunday; attendance could reach 500,000 during its two-month run. Efforts to make imaginative connections with what the crowds (including Denis Diderot, Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire) came for are amply rewarded. “In the Salon of 1879,” a witty grisaille by Wilhelm Gause, a genre painter from the Düsseldorf Academy, presents the spectacle as a social event, a place to see and be seen. Paintings are hung floor to ceiling and frame against frame, a practicality that slights modern insistence on sanctuary space for each object.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s “The Water Girl” (1885) is a direct descendent of Ingres’s water nymph “The Source” (1856). His tidied-up peasant, modeled on a young girl from his own village, is cleaner than her real-life counterpart but the point lies elsewhere: in the solemn face of authentic childhood and the exquisite S-curve of her stance. Derived from Greco-Roman statuary, her pose suggests that a simple rural girl is as much heir to classical values as her social betters. It is a courteous conception beautifully rendered.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s sly gem “Working in Marble” (1890) is astonishingly small for such complexity of composition. Gérôme portrays himself on a turn stand, putting the final touches on the full-size plaster maquette of his famous stature “Tenagra.” He gauges the accuracy of his work against the live model and amid his collection of props for historical paintings. Reality and artifice intertwine with a wry hint of self-satire that contradicts contemporary dismissals of Gérôme as sentimental.

It is hard for us to disassociate academic female nudes, shaved of pubic stubble, from air-brushed luvvies in girlie magazines. Classicizing the female form—painting the figure to emulate antique marble ones—had hazards even then. Looking at “Andromeda Chained to a Rock” (1874) by Henry Pierre Picou, leading practitioner of the néo-grec style in the 1850s, I couldn’t help but think of John Ruskin whose wedding night came to ruin over dismay at unsuspected details of his wife’s nakedness. The distorting mix of classicism, reticence and fantasy in depictions of women keeps us aware that the past is, truly, a foreign country. Travel in it requires some willing suspension of comfort.

The Dahesh presents a past contemporary Americans know little about. A significant degree of historical reality, if not realism, resides in the collection. Much on view clears the hurdle of “Orientalism”, the new Western sin uncovered by Edward Said in his 1978 book of that name. Look at George Clarin’s “Battle of Arabs,” which resulted from travel across North Africa in 1869. It describes a common entertainment: a mock battle that involved up to 500 charging horsemen who brandish swords, fling torches and shoot wildly. Such images draw disfavor from Said’s camp for stereotyping Arab culture as violent. Indeed. Clarin knew dead horses when he saw them. The battles may have been staged but ammunition was live and torches set fire where they landed.

Czech painter Jaroslav Cermák exhibited “The Abduction by Bashi-bazouks in a Christian Village in Herzegovia” [original title] in the Salon of 1861. He had his choice of antecedents for the composition—various rapes of Proserpine, Europa or Sabine women and multiple abductions by fauns—but he witnessed his subject first hand: savage violence by Turkish troops against non-muslims in Central Europe. Here a woman is carried off as booty by the murderers of her husband and child, a graphic reminder that the Ottomans took white slaves from the Caucasus, Armenia and Greece. A formidably rendered image of domination, the painting keeps us mindful that before the West coined obliging sophistries like “Islamism,” there was Islam. And it was relentless.

Some painters, such as Britain’s Edwin Longsden Long, partly based their motifs on book illustrations, taking us on a camel ride back to stage sets for Cecile B. DeMille’s “Cleopatra.” (As they might, since paintings—called pictures—were popular precursors to the movies.) But most worked from direct knowledge of Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Turkey and the Levant. Austrian photographers Rudolf Lehnert and Ernest Landrock, who journeyed through North Africa in the early 20th century, produced photogravures of the desert and its Bedouin people that overwhelm with a harsh beauty. Charles-Théodore Frère (1814-1888), one of the best known recorders of the Islamic East, established a studio in Cairo and, like the Impressionists, painted outdoors for accuracy. His “The Banks of the Nile, Cairo” has the golden shimmer and coloristic splendor that brought him the admiration of Claude Monet. Francois-Pierre-Bernard Barry, commissioned by Napoleon III to record the building of the Suez Canal, exhibited his Egyptian paintings in the Salon of 1863. “The Caravan, Egypt” is one of them: a stunningly atmospheric scene of Bedouins moving their herd along a stream.

Several small studies are not to be missed: Benamin-Constant’s “Seated Arabs” (1877), steeped in the mood of Delacroix; Henri Fantin-Latour’s darkling “Scene from Oberon” (1869); Isadore-Alexandre Pils’s plein air oil sketch “Seated Arab.” Frederic Leighton, president of Britain’s Royal Academy in the late 1800s, is represented by two semi-abstract oil studies, jewels of color harmony and delicious brushwork.

Drawing was the touchstone of academic art because form, not color, was thought the greatest conveyor of expression. With drawing dropped from the art curriculum of many institutions, young artists flocked to last year’s show of the instructional drawings of Charles Bargue whose Cours de Dessin was essential for 19th century students. One of Bargue’s lithographs is on view now together with miraculous figure drawings by a selection of other academicians. The ensemble testifies to the old-fashioned assumption that disciplined training is crucial to creating anything of value in the arts.

“The Dahesh Collection: Celebrating a Decade of Discover” at the Dahesh Museum (580 Madison Avenue, between 56th and 57th Street, 212.759.0606).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, August 4, 2005.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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