For the first time the Petit Palais is offering the public a spectacular ensemble of 18th-century religious paintings created for the churches of Paris. Through some 200 works the museum will reveal the significance and diversity of artistic output in Paris from the Regency to the French Revolution: from such heirs to the age of Louis XIV as Largillière and Restout to the exponents of rocaille, from Lemoine to Carle Van Loo, and the best of Neo-Classicism, from Vien to David. Produced in partnership with COARC (Conservation of Religious and Secular Works of Art for the City of Paris), this exhibition is an extension of the one at the Musée Carnavalet in 2012, which focused on 17th-century painting in Paris churches and the rediscovery of an enormous, little-known heritage.
The emphasis of 18th-century French painting was more on the sophistication of the fête galante and the portrait than the elaborateness of great religious art. Outside the Salon season, however, it was in the churches of Paris that art lovers could view contemporary painting, and so the city’s artists gave of their best there.
Indeed, parishes and congregations bent on renovating the capital’s places of worship were among the main sponsors of history painting, and it is this forgotten segment of 18th-century art that «Enlightenment Baroque» aims to reassess.
In a spectacular decor evocative of the inside of a church and its related spaces – the chapels and the sacristy, for example – the exhibition itinerary highlights numerous masterpieces, often very large, that have benefited from unprecedentedly thorough renovation. In addition to the pictures still to be seen in churches today, the exhibition brings together works which since the Revolution have been scattered in various institutions (the Louvre, the Château de Versailles and the art museums of Lyon, Rennes, Marseille, Brest and elsewhere) or in churches and cathedrals nearby (Saint Denis and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, for example), or further away (Mâcon, Lyon).
Divided into eight sections, the itinerary delights the eye with the finesse and varying styles of altarpieces, the colourful grace of François Lemoine, Jean-François de Troy and Noël Hallé, and the unadorned Neo-Classicism of Drouais and, of course, David, whose large portrait of Christ closes the exhibition.
There are also references to ornamental ensembles, some of which, like Charles Natoire’s decor for the Chapelle des Enfants Trouvés have been lost or destroyed. Other sections are devoted to images of the new saints of the Counter-Reformation, smaller works intended for private devotion, commissioning procedures and the restorations that took place at the time in ancient buildings like the Invalides.
Along the way viewers will find two educational spaces, one given over to restoration campaigns and the other to religious imagery. Visitors will also be able to take part in guided tours of various religious edifices in Paris. This groundbreaking panorama of religious painting in 18th- century Paris is nothing short of a revelation: the pictures brought together for the occasion have been endowed with an unsuspected vividness of colour harking back to what we find so agreeable in the art of the Age of Enlightenment.