“A Refuge of Peaceful Meditation”

The Forthcoming Catalogue of French Paintings and Pastels from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In January of 1915, Claude Monet (1840-1926) wrote of his intention to begin work on his large-scale triptych Water Lilies, of which the Nelson-Atkins painting comprises the right-hand panel (FIG 1): “I’m pursuing my idea of grande décoration. It’s really an enormous task that I’ve undertaken, especially at my age, (he was 75) but I am not unhopeful of achieving it if I stay healthy.” Partially conceived against the backdrop of war, Monet worked on the composition for nearly 12 years until his death, and made extensive revisions, hoping it would inspire “a refuge of peaceful meditation.” Similarly, for the past 12 years, curators, conservators, scientists and independent scholars have been working to realize a catalogue of the Nelson-Atkins’ collection of French paintings and pastels. It has been, and it remains an enormous task, with numerous revisions and multiple staff changes along the way. We hope it too will facilitate a space of contemplation amidst the turmoil of present-day life.

This fall, in celebration of the Museum’s reopening, we are thrilled to announce the beginning of a serial release of the French paintings catalogue on the museum’s website through a new interactive digital platform. (FIG 2- homepage of digital catalogue) Not only does this catalogue mark the museum’s first foray into the field of digital publishing, but it will also be free and open access to all. This systematic catalogue encompasses the most up-to-date scholarship and careful conservation examination of the museum’s collection of 106 French paintings and drawings from the 1600s to the 1900s, including the recent gift of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterworks given to the museum by the Henry and Marion Bloch family. Through this endeavor, we advanced our understanding of well-known works, including Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees, 1889, (FIG 3) and deepened our appreciation for less well-known artists including Armand Guillaumin and his early landscape on the outskirts of Paris, painted around 1876-1877. (FIG 4 Landscape, Île-de-France, c. 1876-1877)

Van Gogh painted the Nelson-Atkins’ Olive Trees composition in two distinct sessions in the summer of 1889 during his stay in a mental health facility in the south of France. Reverberating with strong color contrasts of red, green, blue and yellow, Van Gogh knew, however, that select pigments he used might eventually fade. Scientific analyses in tandem with close reading of the artist’s correspondence confirms this in select areas of the Olive Trees canvas, and offers clues to the nature and extent of change. Will this knowledge affect our understanding of one of the museum’s most beloved French paintings? (FIG 5 – John Twilley performing XRF on painting?)

In speaking about his friend Armand Guillaumin, Paul Cézanne remarked, “Guillaumin is an artist with a great future.” Sadly, he remains largely unknown today. New research, however, reveals the important role Guillaumin played as artistic collaborator, guide and mentor to Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others. The museum’s early work by Guillaumin points to some of this influence through his keen interest in urban scenes rendered with brilliant use of color. Note the red roof and bold green of the landscape, and the smokestacks that dot the distant horizon. (see FIG. 4)

Years of research conducted by many individuals added exponentially to our understanding of the provenance, or history of ownership, of the French paintings and pastels within the Nelson-Atkins’ collection. For example, prior to beginning this project, we knew nothing about the ownership before 1953 for Jean-Etienne Liotard’s (1702-1789) rare oil, A Lady in Turkish Dress and Her Servant, painted around 1750. (FIG 6). Now, however, we can trace the picture to 1787, just under three decades from its creation!

When Claude Monet began work on Water Lilies in 1915 against the backdrop of war, he hoped it would inspire “a refuge of peaceful meditation.” This becomes all the more poignant now as we write during not only a pandemic of health, but also one of racial aggression. We share Monet’s wish, and we hope with this digitally launched open-access French catalogue that you find a space to revisit old favorites anew and develop new ones, freely and often. Art has the power to do many things, but it is only activated when shared with a community.

–Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Ph.D., Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Arts

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