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As only the French can do it.

FOR THE ART of drawing, 19th-century France was a remarkably creative period of richness, diversity, experimentation, and inventiveness. "Color. Line. Light: French Drawrags, Watercolors. and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac" presents 100 outstanding works that showcase the broad development of modern draftsmanship during this period.

The tradition of drawing in France already was centuries old by the early 1800s but. increasingly, in the drawings became widely valued, exhibited, and marketed as independent works of art. Their new status officially was recognized and promoted when they were given a separate category at the Paris Salon exhibition.

"Color, Line, Light" is organized chronologically into sections that correspond roughly to five major stylistic movements that flourished during the 19th century: romanticism, realism and naturalism, impressionism, the Nabis and symbolists, and neo-impressionism. The works encompass nearly all of the graphic media used by artists during the period, most types of drawings they made (compositional sketches, figure studies, and finished pieces that were complete works of art in themselves), and a broad range of the subjects they treated (landscape, genre, portraits, and interiors).

Romanticism. The romantic movement in French art thrived during the first half of the 19th century, with Eugene Delacroix as its leading practitioner. Color played an important role in romantic drawings, with watercolor, pastel, and colored papers used frequently to heighten the visual effect and elicit strong responses in the spectators. The power and beauty of nature were favorite subjects, whether presented in the form of threatening storms and raging seas, as seen in "Fishing Boats Tossed before a Storm" (c. 1840), a watercolor by Eugene Isabey, or portrayed in a gentler, more contemplative mode, such as "Sunset over a Pond" (c. 1876) by Francois-Auguste Ravier and "Sunset in an Oriental Landscape" (c. 1845) by Gabriel Hippolyte Lebas.

Realism and naturalism. Simultaneous with the rise of romanticism in France, an interest emerged in drawing the natural world as it truly appeared, as objectively and accurately as possible, without idealizing or embellishing the subject. Artists also broadened their subject matter to include virtually every facet of the everyday world and contemporary life. The new approach to landscape drawing in France was developed for the most part by artists who visited and worked in the wild environs of the forest of Fontainebleau, around the hamlet of Barbizon, 35 miles south of Paris. Drawings by several of the key Barbizon artists are on view, including "Nude Reclining in a Landscape" (1845) by Jean-Francois Millet and "Sunset from the Forest of Fontainebleau" (1850) by Theodore Rousseau.

Toward the end of the century, a new form of realism emerged that focused even more intensely on scenes of everyday reality in the modem world. This "naturalist" art coincided with similar themes of naturalism expressed in the writings of Emile Zola and other writers of the time. Key to this new approach was the detailed observation and dispassionate documentation of ordinary life, as in Leon Augustin Lhermitte's 1878 portrait of an elderly peasant woman, whose face is deeply creviced by time and care.

Impressionism. Many impressionist painters were accomplished draftsmen, most notably Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cezanne. Although they drew in a variety of media, watercolor and pastel allowed them the same degree of freedom as oils and allowed them to express similar qualities of light and bright color. Degas, represented by two works--including a monumental pastel, "Two Women Ironing" (c. 1885)--was the most experimental and innovative of the group. Cezanne's virtuosity as a watercolorist is well represented by a single piece, "A Stand of Trees along a River Bank" (1885), while Claude Monet's "Waterloo Bridge" (1901) shows how effectively and subtly he could capture with pastels the qualifies of light and color he sought to express with oils.

Nabis and symbolists. In the late 1880s, a group of French artists calling themselves the "Nabis," after the Hebrew word for "prophet," sought to create a new kind of art that no longer was centered on the depiction of reality. The Nabis were inspired by Paul Gauguin, who then was experimenting with new approaches to the use of color, employing different, more intense versions of the hues he observed in nature. Among the founding members of the Nabi brotherhood were Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Ranson. Their aesthetic was influenced in part by the symbolists, especially Odilon Redon, who transformed natural objects into fanciful visions or combined the natural and the unnatural in mysteriously dreamlike works.

Neo-impressionism. The neo-impressionists instituted a new form of impressionism based on two theories of color relationships presented by the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul: optical mixing, in which two juxtaposed colors can be seen to blend together to suggest a third, and simultaneous contrast, in which the perception of a particular hue is influenced by the ones that are placed next to it. Instead of mixing their paints, the neo-impressionists sought to preserve the brilliance and luminosity of their pigments by juxtaposing small dots of pure color, which would blend optically when seen from a distance. A surprisingly large number of neo-impressionist drawings are tonal compositions rendered entirely in subtly modulated black chalk, black crayon, or charcoal on textured white paper. Georges Seurat, the inventor of pointillism, was the great master of this technique, as seen in "Woman Strolling with a Muff" (c. 1884).

"Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac" is on view through May 26 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Museums Today; Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U5DC
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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