|Noel Nicolas Coypel’s "The Abduction of Europa" (1726-1727), shown here at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, played a critical role in shaping American taste in 18th century French art. — AFP Photo|Viet Nam News
WASHINGTON — When Napoleon’s elder brother Joseph Bonaparte was forced into exile, he brought to the US a collection of lavish rococo and neoclassical paintings that earned enduring American fascination.
Among the works Bonaparte left behind when he returned to France in 1839 was Noel Nicolas Coypel’s The Abduction of Europa (1726-1727), a period indulgence, complete with fleshy nudes, cherubs and a white bull basking in golden sunlight.
Bonaparte would show off this monumental work to visitors of his sprawling Point Breeze estate in New Jersey at a time when so much nudity could still offend Puritan minds in America.
In a perhaps oddly humoristic touch, the bull — the mythological god Jupiter, who transformed himself into the earthly creature to abduct the nymph Europa — is presented tongue out and eyes half-closed in delight.
Thomas Jefferson, too, helped fuel American interest with his earnest appreciation of works he saw at the Paris salon, especially what he called "superb" paintings by Jacques Louis David.
These and other stories of the collectors, dealers and art lovers behind the huge trove of 18th century French paintings spread across the United States are the focus of an exhibition that opened Sunday and runs through August 20 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
This first ever look at American taste for 18th French painting strays from the beaten path by showing the great variety of works from this period in an unusual grouping that prominently features women artists and even one of the first known mixed-race painters of the Western canon, Guillaume Lethiere.
A David can be as neoclassically sober and edifying as a Jean Honore Fragonard can be an opulent indulgence of the senses.
The show also reflects the elevated status American institutions have given to French women painters of the era, one that is notably diminished in their native country. AFP