The Museum’s holdings of European painting and sculpture offer visitors a view into the history of Western civilization from about 1100 until 1900. The lives of the aristocracy, the middle class, and the poor are on display. How they worshipped, what they wore, where they worked, and the stories they told can be found in the galleries.
Especially noteworthy are the Kress Collection of Italian renaissance and baroque art and the Noah L. and Muriel S. Butkin Collection, the strength of which are prime examples of French academic art.
In 2013 the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century galleries were reinstalled focusing on the strengths of the collection. French art of the “long” nineteenth century (1789–1914) is well represented on the University’s campus. Many of the artists featured here belonged to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts). Studying their art contributes to our understanding of the social and political structures that underpin cultural production.
A rich collection of oil sketches offers visitors a glimpse into the rigors of academic practice and illustrates the sketch aesthetic that opened the way for greater abstraction and expression in the decades before World War I.
This unusual portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais (1763–1814), the future wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and empress of France, joins depictions of other political figures in the Snite Museum’s collections. This may be the earliest known portrait of the young socialite, probably commissioned by her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais. Josephine was born to a plantation owner on the island of Martinique and married the governor’s son, who served as an officer in both the American Revolution and the French Revolutionary Army, in 1779. Running afoul of Robespierre, both Alexandre and Josephine were imprisoned during the Reign of Terror; Josephine alone escaped the guillotine. The widow with two children married Napoleon in 1796 but bore him no children. Concerned for the succession of the throne, Napoleon divorced her in 1809.
Painted on the occasion of the Fête de la Federation (the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille on July 14), the artist shows Josephine in an oval, à l’antique (in profile) against a fairly simple background dressed in a fashionable red, white, and blue ensemble that suggests her solidarity with the revolutionaries. During the festivities, she and her husband represented the Island of Martinique, signaled by her exotic headgear described as à la créole. Seventy years later this work served as a model for another painting made by the artist Hector Viger who used it as a source for his fictionalized scene of Josephine and their two children visiting Alexandre in the Luxembourg prison.
Meunier was keenly interested in the contemporary experience of the Belgian working class. After cofounding the anti-academic Free Society of Fine Arts in 1868, he spent two decades traveling throughout the industrial regions of southern Belgium painting factories and the human labor that powered them. His bleak industrial settings painted in a realist style, such as Landscape with Factory, first appeared publicly at the Ghent triennial exhibition and the Paris Salon of 1880. Meunier also created sculptures ennobling workers, the most famous of which are Monument to Labor and Monument to Émile Zola, the author of Germinal (1885), an unvarnished novel about the brutality of working in coal mines.