French Art on Loan from the Chrysler

It’s almost like a clever conversation among artists in a Paris salon – except that the participants now call Virginia and North Carolina their homes.

Learning that the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk would be closing for renovations and additions, curators at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh moved quickly to inquire about the availability of certain French works there.

“I called a curator there and she said: ‘You’re the first to ask – make a list,’” says David Steel, NCMA curator of European art.  “As a curator, I can tell you that it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does – it’s great.”

Steel’s short list of 10 18th- and 19th– century works include sculptures by Rodin and Bertos, and paintings by Gleyre, Degas, Renoir, Cassatt, Lefebvre, and Fantin-Latour.   He selected them not to hang in a gallery unto themselves, but to mingle among their peers in the museum’s light-drenched West Wing designed by Thomas Phifer.

“We’d never be able to acquire a Degas of the quality of this one,” he says of the artist’s Dancers with Bouquets.  “It enhances our Degas.”

The two museums came by their collections in distinctly different ways.  One was the beneficiary of a very generous gift from Walter Chrysler Jr., when his excellent collection of 19th-century French paintings was bestowed upon it.  The NCMA collection is a little more encyclopedic, with more emphasis on the Old Masters as well as Italian, French and American work.  So Steel made his selections carefully, as complements to what already hangs in Raleigh.

“In essence, the sum of the parts is much greater than the individual pieces,” he says.  “I chose a few unexpected things, because they work perfectly with what we have here.”

The Lefebvre painting on loan depicts a coquettish, seductive image of a Japanese woman in a kimono, nibbling on a fan.  Steel has placed it next to a painting from the NCMA collection of woman similarly attired and from the same time period.

He borrowed two Rodin’s, one of which is the sculptor’s first great masterpiece, The Age of Bronze. “We have a good collection, but that’s the one I’ve missed,” he says of the 30 Rodin’s at NCMA.  “It caused a scandal in his day, because he was accused of using the mold of a real body.  But he proved he modeled it on his own, and the result was that he got the commission for The Gates of Hell.

He placed a Renoir painting of two young girls seated in a garden next to a William Merritt Chase painting of a similar scene and a Mary Cassatt image of mother, daughter and baby.  “You get very different looks at children,” he says.  “The combination is just so perfect, especially in our gallery with this wonderful light.”

The juxtapositions come with something of an ulterior motive, however.

“I thought: How can I create conversations between the Chrysler’s work and ours, so that people will see it and say: ‘I’d like to buy you a Renoir!” he says.  “By showing how they fit together, there’s a chance that someone will say ‘Boy, that’s great – I’d like to see it forever.”

And to spur things on a bit, he’s bringing in some heavy hitters for further illumination.  On Sunday, April 28 at 2:30, noted Degas expert Richard Kendall will be at the museum for a lecture.  “He’s the foremost expert on Degas,” Steel says.

That’s guaranteed to raise the tenor of the conversation.

For more information, go to here.

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