Paris’ Tuileries Garden and Palace provided the stage and scenery for nearly 500 years of the often dramatic pageant of French history. Created during the reign of Catherine de’ Medici in the 1560s, almost all subsequent French monarchs resided there at some point. During the French revolution, the palace housed the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while under house arrest awaiting execution. Napoleon married Josephine there in 1796. In 1871, political radicals used the site as ground-zero for a disastrous socialist commune, which left the palace gutted and destroyed by fire and never rebuilt. In quieter times, the site captured the imagination of a host of celebrated artists and writers. For over ten million visitors annually, they continue to hospitably offer a tranquil getaway from the hustle of urban Paris. Until May 11, 2014 over a hundred works of sculpture, paintings, photography, and other media from and inspired by the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden provide visitors a small taste of Paris in Toledo.
The show fills the Toledo Museum of Art’s multi-room Canaday Gallery space with works on loan from the Louvre, the Musée Carnavalet, the palace of Versailles, and other lenders from both sides of the Atlantic. Near the entrance, a large multi-screen video projection surrounds viewers on three sides, providing a virtual tour through the Tuileries as classical music plays in the background. Some greenery throughout the gallery space helps to evoke an outdoor setting.
At the turn of the century, the gardens famously captured the interest of the Impressionists. While living adjacent to the Tuileries from 1899 to 1900, Camille Pissarro manically produced 31 paintings of the palatial grounds. Four of these works hang in the show. His Tuileries Garden (1900) presents the manicured beauty of nature set against the urban Parisian skyline as faintly visible industrial smoke rises upward. American Impressionists William Samuel Horton and Childe Hassam both present their predictably wispy interpretations of the gardens in hurried, pastel-colored brushstrokes. Much more daring is the heavily abstracted and gestural garden painting by Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, who aggressively attacks the canvas in what seems like a battle against time to capture the moment the light creeps through clouds just after an afternoon shower.
The show also features a large selection of photographs, some dating back to 1837, the year the daguerreotype became publicly available. Working for architect Hector Lefuel, photographer Édouard Baldus produced many poster-sized images of the architecture of both the garden and palace, originally conceived as a reference project in which to record every brick and stone. His magnificently detailed images and strict attention to detail produced visually hypnotic 19th century high-definition images that blur the boundary between documentary and artistic photography. Hector Lefuel placed these into albums given to Emperor Napoleon III, who, in turn, presented them as gifts to visiting European dignitaries.
Other photographers took a more interpretive approach. Brassaï’s often blury disorienting images capture the gardens at night and show the grounds bathed by eerie lunar luminescence, transforming the familiar garden into an unrecognizable other-worldly space. An especially arresting photograph by Robert Doisneau taken during the Second World War shows the garden’s sculptures removed from their pedestals and piled in a protective trench; one sculpture’s face wears a surprisingly vivid look of indignant disbelief.
France generously loaned an impressive selection of sculptures, many of which also make cameo appearances in the exhibition’s photographs and paintings. Two sculptures by Maillol (including his famous Mediterranean), recognizable for their simplified abstract forms, stand guard just outside the exhibition space. Almost stealing the show an imposing, over-life-sized Hercules Battling Achelus, depicts the impossibly muscular Greek hero on the brink of killing his serpentine foe with a blow to the head.
A handsome catalogue accompanies this exhibition, replete with images of all its works and several essays which place them in context. As TMA exhibitions go, The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden seems to take itself rather seriously. Visitors will not find the usual children’s corners or hands-on stations. But the show certainly avoids being prohibitively academic or stuffy and includes a surprising amount of levity and humor. Many prints teasingly poke fun at the Parisian bourgeoisie with their spectacularly high coiffured hairdos and exotic fashions enjoying afternoon walks, fetes champetre, under the trees, French poodles in tow. Alongside neoclassical sculptures heavy-handedly trumpeting the virtues of heroism and monarchy, we also see frisky fawns and piping Pans. One can only leave this exhibition wishing somehow to instantaneously teleport to the actual Tuileries Garden. Except, of course, what would be the point? All its sculptures are over here.