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Son of a banker: Portrait of Alfred Bruyas by Alexandre Cabanel.

Portraits, Patrons and Power
By David Brickman

Bonjour Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute through Sept. 6

There is nothing an artist wants more than a patron. But, as in romance, such a relationship is fraught with risk, especially the risk of getting into an unequal struggle for power. This lesson, as well as many others, is there to be learned in Bonjour Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, currently on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

Organized to travel under the auspices of the French Regional American Museums Exchange (FRAME), the show has had a stop in Richmond, Va., and will go on to Dallas and then San Francisco before returning to its home museum in France. The creation of FRAME is a story in itself: It was initiated in 1999 by Elizabeth Rohatyn (whose husband, Felix, was U.S. ambassador to France) and Françoise Cachin, former director of the Museums of France, as a cultural exchange among museums in both countries that were not on the beaten path of tourism—and the program appears to have become a monumental success, with numerous exhibitions having travelled among the member museums in places such as Cleveland; Lyon; Portland, Ore.; Strasbourg; Minneapolis and many others.

So, if you’ve never heard of Mont pellier—and you surely have plenty of good company in that—it’s now on your radar as the home of 19th-century heir and art patron Alfred Bruyas and the museum upon which he bestowed his wonderful collection. Bruyas was already building a collection when he encountered the work of modernist painter Gustave Courbet at the Paris Salon of 1853. After buying two of the three Courbets in the Salon, both of which are in this show, Bruyas then commissioned a portrait (also in the exhibition) and began a correspondence with the artist.

Bruyas desired to be more than a patron or collector—he wanted to be part of the artistic process—and he pursued his relationship with Courbet to this end. Courbet must have felt he’d found a kindred spirit, or at least a rich sucker, when he accepted Bruyas’s invitation to visit the southern town of Montpellier the following year. The primary result of Courbet’s five-month stay was The Meeting, a major painting around which this exhibition is built (and the derogatory nickname of which has been taken as the show’s title).

In The Meeting, we see the figure of Courbet as the rustic artist—hiking staff in hand, rucksack on his back—as he encounters the well-heeled patron Bruyas for the first time on a country road outside Montpellier. Bruyas, hat doffed in greeting, stands stiffly in a fine coat; his manservant stands behind him, studying the ground, while an eager-looking hound pants happily at his side. Courbet regards Bruyas with what looks like amusement or derision, his long, bristly black beard pointed out at an arrogant angle toward the impassive red-bearded banker’s son.

Courbet is clearly the more robust of the two (in fact, Bruyas was sickly all his life) and apparently the more confident as well. He may not have money, he appears to be thinking, or fancy clothes, but he is obviously the better man here, more worldly and better able to handle himself. He accepts the patron on his own terms—as a submissive second in service to the master and his art. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Bruyas had other ideas, more along the lines of Courbet behaving similarly to the hound—as a favored pet.

When The Meeting was exhibited, it drew harsh criticism. The mock title, phrased as a greeting, sounds innocent enough—but it places Courbet in the dominant role, with the patron calling him “sir” instead of the other way around. Whereas Courbet was likely pleased by the provocation the painting brought, Bruyas was not, and he blamed Courbet, ultimately ending their relationship in 1857. Perhaps the greatest shame Bruyas felt was to recognize through this process that he was in fact the vain, bourgeois collector-patron who couldn’t handle negative publicity, and not the intellectual or moral equal of the bold artist with whom he wished to be associated.

Bruyas cultivated relationships with other artists in his lifetime, but none so significant as that with Courbet. The exhibition examines these associations as well, in a room-by-room format that is easy and enjoyable to navigate, and that sheds light on the collector’s passion while providing the opportunity simply to view a few truly wonderful paintings, along with a good bit of lesser work. Notable in both groups are the many portraits Bruyas commissioned.

One of the earlier commissioned portraits is also one of the best, by Alexandre Cabanel. In it, the very accomplished young painter (he was 23 when the painting was done in 1846) depicts an equally accomplished young connoisseur, tortoiseshell spectacles casually dangled from a hand, Renaissance-style background provided by the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome.

Other Cabanel works are grouped nearby, including a related trio (representing “work, religion and love” according to the wall label) in which the third, titled Albaydé, projects far more—and less—than love, being almost wholly about lust and sexual abandon. Another strong piece is a self-portrait of the artist at 29, said to have been inspired by paintings Cabanel saw at the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence.

Room two is dedicated to the time and style of the Barbizon school, and features a couple of large, masterful Théodore Rousseau drawings and an impressive large 1869 landscape by Jules Didier titled A Pine Forest at Castel Fugano. There is also a very fetching portrait titled Woman Reclining on a Divan by Joseph Désiré Court from 1829 which Bruyas acquired in 1866—an example of numerous works included here where the purchase was made not as a form of patronage but to fill out the collection.

The third room in the exhibition is dominated by the Orientalism of Eugène Delacroix and features an 1849 version of a famous earlier Delacroix painting that hangs in the Louvre Museum, depicting Women of Algiers in their Apartment. Another Delacroix oil was purchased by a prescient Bruyas after the artist’s death in 1863; it is a slightly sketchy 1824 portrait of a boldly sensual young woman of Asian or North African descent that the painter probably considered either too personal or too rough to exhibit or sell. It is a fine addition to the collection.

The final room in the exhibition before that devoted to Courbet represents romanticism, and includes the show’s only sculptures, which are small bronze figures of animals and mythic figures by Antoine-Louis Barye. The room however is overwhelmed by another of Bruyas’s later purchases: a shockingly beautiful grotesque by Théodore Géricault depicting severed human limbs. The 1818-19 oil was a study for the great masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (though the subject did not make it into the final painting, which hangs in the Louvre) and was made by copying from cadaver parts salvaged from a hospital. It took great courage on the part of the artist to paint, and on the part of the collector to buy.

While Bruyas’s provincialism and preciousness come across in the exhibition, so do his sincerity, vision and—for his time—boldness. We owe a debt to him for assembling and donating such a collection, as we do to Rohatyn for initiating the exchange that brought it here. But, as Courbet in his confidence was willing to show plainly in the title painting, it is always the artist who is more important in the relationship. Because, after all, an artist is always an artist, with or without a patron—but a patron without an artist is nothing at all.

The Clark has arranged a spate of programming around the Bonjour Monsieur Courbet! exhibition, including talks, tours and films. The lecture series, featuring prominent art experts speaking in the galleries, runs every Saturday at 2 PM. Call (413) 458-0524 or go to www.clarkart.edu for information.


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