Friday, January 27, 2023

Direct from Paris


From The Greenfield Recorder:

With admission now free until April, through March 12 at Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute you can view Parisian drawings and prints from the 1700s, ranging from colorful views of flowered landscapes to the mysterious and the fantastic. “Promenades on Paper” is the exhibit’s title as well as its companion catalogue (CAI; Yale University; 260 pgs. $50).

Many of the images have never previously been exhibited and several were once in the collection of royals. The show is composed of more than 80 art works and features several drawing devices commonly used in the 18th century. Its creation required the combined work of institute curators in tandem with Bibliotheque nationale de France (BNF) staff over the course of some 18 months. The Parisian institution is a repository of virtually all printed matter in the country, employs 2,500 people and has an annual budget of €254 million.

Clark Curator Sarah Grandin and BNF Deputy Head of Prints and Photographs Corinne Le Bitouze led a press reception through the galleries.

“They really rolled out the red carpet for us and made the work as easy as possible,” Grandin said, referring to the cooperation provided by the BNF through visits, Zoom conferences and emails.

There are some 15 million images of virtually anything in print from the country stored at the Paris site and due to its cavernous accumulation of paper works it’s one of the few places in Paris where smoking is forbidden.

“We don’t know exactly what we have,” Le Bitouze said at one point. “We have too many images. It’s impossible to know what we have.”

Available online is a brief, 1956 documentary about the BNF which filmmaker Alain Resnais titled “All The World’s Memory.” It depicts overwhelming canyons of papers and files. Following a recent 12 year renovation, however, the visual riches of the institution are now available digitally online at


A brilliant botanical example is the work of Madeleine Francoise Besseporte, who in her mid-30s became the first female designated as the King’s official garden painter. She was also influential with the King’s mistress Madame de Pompadour, convincing him as to the importance of horticultural science. Besseporte also decorated porcelain and textiles and would whimsically add spiders and colorful moths to her flower studies.

There are also works by Emilie Bounieu who created virtually photographic depictions of biological and botanical studies. As one catalogue writer noted, one realistic drawing “seems to escape the two-dimensional confines of the page.”

At the time, women were barred from studying human form and the Royal Academy of Sculpture only allowed four women to enroll annually. They were not allowed to attend workshops....

For the privileged, a popular avocation was the promenade. Leisurely walks were taken through park pathways as a way of being seen and seeing. The exercise was so in vogue that many green spaces set aside special hours and days for such frivolity. You were also considered out of the loop if you didn’t carry a long cane.

Sophisticates were also wild about having their portrait created and the semi-automated “physiognotrace,” invented in 1783, was a remarkable aid to artists. It was several steps beyond the technique of tracing a person’s profile in the shadow of candlelight. The device allowed the artist to outline a sitter’s face with a stylus, while the movement was copied, with great detail, on paper nearby with another drawing instrument. There’s a model of this innovative apparatus in the Clark exhibit, alongside a finished product.

A camera obscura device, dating to the late 18th century, is also on view. With simple optics, an artist could trace a scene entirely as it was projected. When stowed, the antique, with flowered borders, simply collapsed into a cabinet no larger than a suitcase. (Read more.)


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