America Collects Eighteenth Century French Painting

When Americans collect, they really collect! It’s generally known that Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst and that Kane’s massive and obsessive acquisition of European artefacts reflected both that of his original and of many contemporaries. This, then, is not a slim volume of dilettante collections, but a blockbuster of a book with 232 top-quality illustrations and all the academic research and authority that the Washington National Gallery of Art can bring to the feast.

The tale begins in 1815, when Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) arrives from across the Atlantic with an impressive collection of the Eighteenth Century art of his country. This kick-started fashion and mansions were furnished with works by artists such as Boucher and Fragonard. In modern times, the neoclassicism of David and others has been added to the mix and the interest continues.

This book accompanies an exhibition which brings together sixty-eight paintings by thirty-eight artists, having been gathered from no fewer than twenty-five states. It’s worth quoting those numbers just to give an idea of the extent of the collection and the distribution of the works across the country. Even then, it’s been selective. It should also be said that the book stands alone as a separate product and is a long way from being an exhibition catalogue that would benefit from a visit.

The book, with contributions from eleven different writers, doesn’t just list, reproduce and explain the works, even if that might have been enough. It also tells the story of the collectors, collections, museums and galleries that now house them. It talks about the art dealers who brought them to where they are and becomes, in the process, something of a social history, both in terms of the process of acquisition and the American fascination with the France of the period – with revolution, in a word.

The artistic scope of the book makes it worthwhile on its own, but the historical elements make it compelling reading. Yes, it’s a book about art, but it’s also about collecting, obsession and society and what that tells us about ourselves.

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