Fralin Museum’s “Corot to Cézanne” paints a portrait of the collectors

Edouard Vuillard’s “Young Woman Trying on a Hat,” c. 1900, is one of 55 works on view in the Fralin’s French drawings exhibition. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon Collection, 95.24 Edouard Vuillard’s “Young Woman Trying on a Hat,” c. 1900, is one of 55 works on view in the Fralin’s French drawings exhibition. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon Collection, 95.24

One of America’s great art connoisseurs and patrons, Paul Mellon was quoted as saying that he and his wife “almost never buy a painting or drawing we would not want to live with or see constantly.” Having cut his teeth on father Andrew Mellon’s renowned art collection (which formed the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art), Paul Mellon was graced with an extraordinarily refined eye.

This is evident in “Corot to Cézanne French Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” now on view at the Fralin.

To create the exhibit, Director Bruce Boucher selected 55 works (from 75) that would say something about Paul Mellon because “each collection is in some sense a portrait of the collector.”

Boucher wanted to present the exhibition as if it would appear in a private residence (painting the room a soft green to help convey this), and to separate it out from the rest of the museum. The show follows a kind of thematic pattern starting with the earliest works (Ingres, Delacroix), followed by landscapes comprising three different generations of artist beginning with Corot, then Pissarro (the “father of Impressionism”), then Cézanne, who called himself a pupil of Pissarro. There are also equine works (11 in all), figure studies, and interiors.

The Ingres pencil drawing of the gentle looking Monsieur Jacques Marquet de Montbreton Norvins who, surprisingly, given his countenance and funny little dog, served as the general director of police in the Papal States under Napoleon, exudes a warmth that transcends its astringent precision.

Jean Baptiste Corot, the leading painter of the Barbizon School (named for the town in France where the artists gathered to paint), was a prolific artist whose work, though rooted in a romantic realism, anticipates plein-air Impressionism. Here, he uses subtle gray cadences to render his elegant, petite “Landscape (Paysage animé).”

Of the three Cézannes in the show, “Large Pine Tree, Study” is the most interesting. A preliminary drawing of a famous painting now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it is a striking rendition of a tree reduced to its essentials.

Two van Goghs provide particular insight into his development as an artist. Seven years apart, the first, one of van Gogh’s earliest drawings, is a highly detailed, even busy work. It features a deep perspective, yet has a flat quality that suggests the influence of Japanese woodcuts. The second one demands attention with its dazzlingly expressive lines and dramatic pointillism. A supremely confident work, it’s clear with this one van Gogh has removed the safety net and is soaring through the air.

There are a number of surprises with works that bear no relation to what we think of as a particular artist’s oeuvre: an almost primitive Delacroix of a narcissus, an uncharacteristically saccharine Toulouse Lautrec, a pre-pointillist Seurat and three Bonnards which exhibit none of the Les nabis style so associated with him. The small Bonnard “Still Life,” a late work (1932-1933) of the artist’s materials, is the one I would grab from a burning building.

Picasso’s “Jester on Horseback” is a masterwork of restraint in terms of composition, line and palette, but Picasso’s little blue horse in “The Horse,” a scrap of a drawing pulls at my heartstrings: There’s something moving about the lone horse lifting its head into the wind which blows back its mane. In the background, a windmill crowns the barren landscape. Delacroix’s beautifully drawn old nag in “Study of a Horse” is broken down and yet somehow still noble.

One marvels at Degas’ ability to convey so much with so little in “Seated Jockey” and “Jockey Facing Left,” using just a line or two to evoke an entire animal: “the presence of the absence of the horse,” as Boucher describes it. It’s no secret that Mellon, deep into the racing world, was a keen admirer of horse flesh and I like to think that it was the accurate rendering of the Arab steed (the ancestor of the thoroughbreds in Mellon’s stables) in Carle Vernet’s “Marmeluke on Horseback with Bow and Arrow” that appealed to him. Boldini’s “Young Woman Driving a Carriage” captures a wonderful vignette of a stylish woman driving a carriage, possibly through the Bois de Boulogne. The slapdash quality of the rendering seems perfectly in sync with the spirited scene depicted. It also makes me laugh because the horse has gone through the same glamorizing treatment as Boldini’s chic society clients.

There’s an interesting pre-Cubist charcoal still life by Juan Gris and a perfect, tight little Matisse of a repurposed tobacco jar, Finally, three delightful Vuillards that showcase his singular use of light and pattern and as Boucher puts it, his “wonderful way of compressing space.” Boucher seems particularly taken with the Vuillards; as we stand before the one of a woman trying on a hat, he sighs and says wistfully “I wish we could keep some of these…”


“Corot to Cézanne” The Fralin Museum at UVA. Through June 2.