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Belle Epoque 

What is it about French women anyway? What accounts for their near-mythic status in the English-speaking world, where they have long been portrayed in pop culture as sexier and more passionate than their American or British counterparts? There is no shortage of examples, even on television, ranging from the sensual Mrs. Peignoir, who tormented Basil Fawlty in the classic British TV comedy, Fawlty Towers, to cartoon characters such as Warner Looney Tunes' amorous young female skunk, Fifi Le Fume. And while surely no nation but France could have possibly given us screen divas such as Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau or Catherine Deneuve, we may still wonder about the origins of the popular stereotype, and how accurate it actually is or was.

Thanks to the generosity of the French government, we may soon be getting a clearer picture -- actually, many pictures -- in the form of Femme Femme Femme: Paintings of Women in French Society From Daumier To Picasso From the Museums of France, opening at the New Orleans Museum of Art on March 4. How this came about is a story in its own right. It seems a delegation of French officials had been visiting Atlanta arranging for a loan of paintings from the Louvre to the High Museum of Art around the time Katrina struck this city and the plight of New Orleans as an island surrounded by water was making national headlines. At the urging of the French Consul General in Louisiana, Pierre Lebovics, the French minister of culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and Louvre museum director Henri Loyrette flew to New Orleans in early November to tour the devastation and meet with local officials including NOMA director John Bullard. From this visit was born the idea of a special exhibition featuring masterworks from museums all over France as a goodwill gesture to help NOMA and the city get back on their feet. But what to show?

"I told them, half jokingly, that I thought an exhibition of pictures of beautiful French women would be very popular," said Bullard. "They were a little wary at first, partly because they wanted to make sure whatever they did would be based on sound academic and curatorial principles, and partly because of the stereotype -- the fear that a show featuring women would be construed as an extension of the Male Gaze." That, of course, was a reference to some of the traditional depictions of French women in the pop media stereotypes of the past -- think Bardot or Yvette Mimieux in their sex kitten days -- but it soon became apparent that such an exhibition could also be used to put the myth of the French female in a more realistic perspective. Enter Francis Ribemont, Director of the Musee des Beaux Arts in Rennes and lead curator of this exhibition, who Bullard said "elaborated the idea of showcasing work from 1830 to 1920 because artists of that period documented the emergence of the modern French woman," and voila -- Femme Femme Femme was born. And while there is evidence that male French artists played a major role in shaping the sexy stereotype, works such as Jean-Louis Forain's portrait of poet Anna de Noailles or Georges Clarin's spectacular portrait of Sarah Bernhardt depict women in roles that were relatively trailblazing for the time. Throw in works such as impressionist painter Berthe Morisot's 1885 self portrait and we have a very diverse exhibition featuring an unusual array of paintings, many of which have never before been seen outside of France.

While there is a smattering of work by big name artists ranging from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, William Bouguereau, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Edouard Vuillard, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees Van Dongen and Pablo Picasso, there are also a number of others by artists who will be far less familiar to most Americans. What unites them all, beyond their feminine subject matter, is a dedication to the craft of painting, a determination to recreate the defining qualities of a particular subject, time and place, whether through the precise rendering of details or else through a more gestural evocation of the essential elements of a scene. Because many of these works were painted in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, viewing them can be almost like stepping into a time capsule. So we see not only the evolution of the modern French woman, but also an insider's view of France itself around the turn of the century in the period known as the Belle Epoque. It was an era of great charm, elegance and joie de vivre symbolized by the newly constructed Eiffel Tower and the incandescent street lighting that earned Paris its City of Light moniker, an optimistic, visionary age when anything seemed possible.

In that sense, the dreamy young woman gazing out at us from Renoir's 1896 The Excursionist oil painting sets the tone for much of the show. Ostensibly a view of a girl hiking in the mountains, it subtly conveys something more, and we can only wonder what she is seeing, if only in her mind's eye. Her buoyant mood is made visible by Renoir's signature ability to conjure the most luminous qualities of light from paint finely applied in layers, and to infuse it into the essence of his subjects and the world around them. The mottled mauve and azure sky, with its green-gold aureoles, appears fragrant, as if the balmy, aromatic afternoons of childhood had been somehow distilled as colors.

No less luminous, yet far different in tone, is the 1903 Bal Blanc by Joseph-Marius Avy, a spirited depiction of teenage girls dancing vigorously with each other as an older woman plays the piano. Ordinarily something of a perfunctory prelude to the social dancing the young ladies would later enjoy with young men, this bal blanc is very elegant and energetic, a frothy vortex of white satin and the kind of silky, white-on-white highlights that we ordinarily associate with the society portraits of John Singer Sargent. Buoyant and spirited, it reflects the rather idealized view taken by many French artists of the period, including some associated with the Academie des Beaux Arts, a bastion of what later critics called "bourgeois values" and "romantic fantasies." Dismissed as kitsch by dogmatic 20th century modernists such as Clement Greenberg, academic paintings have gained a new audience in recent times not only for their painterly craftsmanship but also for the insight they offer into the prevailing sensibilities of a bygone time.

The flip side appears in much grittier works of the Naturalist painters such as Gustave Courbet, among others, who spawned succeeding generations of Social Realist artists. For instance, Jules Adler's circa 1893 painting, Atelier For Cutting False Diamonds, depicts women sitting at rows of tables in a grimy-looking factory, and while it doesn't dwell on the grim conditions that we associate with sweatshops, it is clearly not a place where most people would want to work. The contrast between the "pretty," idealized scenes favored by some of the academic artists, and the grimier views of many naturalists and social realists, has been discussed by art historians as a sharply defined boundary and sometimes it was. But there was also a broad middle ground occupied by artists of all stripes, including many impressionists among others, who had a way of synthesizing aesthetic ideals and everyday realities in their work. A fine example of this is Edouard Manet's 1878 canvas, The Barmaid, a breezy impressionist oil painting of a ruddy-faced waitress at a watering hole popular with both gentry in top hats and workers in coveralls. Fascinated by a favorite barmaid's dexterity in juggling drinks and customers in cramped quarters, Manet immortalized her for posterity. Similarly, Edgar Degas' elegant and gauzily impressionistic 1889 oil painting of a rehearsal, Dancers On Stage, is very dreamy and delicate, yet the reality of the performers' lives as workers is also made clear by the dancer slumped on a bench, rubbing her aching feet.

Other working women represented here include Toulouse-Lautrec's portrait of a prostitute known as Rolande, and Henri Gervex's scandalous 1878 boudoir painting, Rolla, named for the despairing reveler casting a farewell glance at a saucy nude courtesan spread revealingly on a bed. While the idealized form of the female nude was hardly new in French art, it was her disheveled clothing scattered all over the floor and furnishings that caused a sensation when it was displayed in an art dealer's window. If paintings such as these offer ample evidence for how French women attained their pop culture notoriety as sensualists, the prevailing impression left by the show as a whole is closer to the diversity the curators intended. Here we survey a world in flux, as women pursue sports, pastimes and occupations that had once been exclusively male domains. The world turns, people change, and this Femme Femme Femme expo offers up an insightful view of a rapidly evolving France at the outset of the modern age.

click to enlarge The Ladies Goldsmith in a Peugeot Voiturette , Julius - Leblanc Stewart
  • The Ladies Goldsmith in a Peugeot Voiturette , Julius Leblanc Stewart
click to enlarge Dancers on Stage , Edgar Degas
  • Dancers on Stage , Edgar Degas
click to enlarge The Bathers , Pablo Picasso
  • The Bathers , Pablo Picasso
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