Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

It is perhaps the single most recognizable image in the history of American painting: the spare interior of an artist’s studio, a gray wall, a Japanese curtain, an aging subject, soberly dressed and seated in profile. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother, painted in the fall of 1871, marks the high point of his career. “It is rare,” wrote Whistler’s friend, the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, “that one can judge an artist by a single work.” Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, is that single work. Endlessly reproduced, imitated and parodied, the picture nonetheless resists any fixed interpretation.

Given the painting’s iconic status in American culture, the fact that Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 resides not in the United States but in France may come as a surprise. Whistler lived almost his entire life abroad. Born in Massachusetts in 1834, he moved to Saint Petersburg at age nine when his father, an engineer, was hired to work on a new Russian railway. In 1848 Whistler moved to England and, after a brief stint in the United States as a cadet at West Point (he was expelled after failing chemistry), he settled in Paris, where he came into his own as an artist, studying the work of Delacroix and Courbet and befriending a circle of young painters at odds with the official academic system. In 1859, Whistler returned to London, where he would reside almost continuously until his death.

Acquired by the French state in 1891, Arrangement hangs today in the great Parisian museum of 19th-century art: the Musée d’Orsay. Whistler’s picture is one of three masterpieces from that museum that will visit the Norton Simon this spring. Joining the Whistler are Édouard Manet’s heroic portrait of his friend, collaborator and critical ally, Émile Zola, and Paul Cézanne’s rapt, meditative Card Players, painted near the end of his life and at the height of his powers.

Like Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Manet’s portrait of Zola depicts a sitter intimately known to the artist. But while Whistler’s painting remains a somewhat remote “arrangement,” Manet’s portrait of Zola is literally overflowing with tokens of friendship. Best remembered for his naturalist novels of the 1860s to 1880s and his stalwart activism in the Dreyfus Affair at the close of the century, the writer was just beginning to make a name for himself as a 26-year-old journalist in 1866, when he published a glowing newspaper article on Manet. In his article, Zola praised the frank modernity of Manet’s style, which had made the painter a divisive figure on the Paris art scene. “What a handsome article!” Manet wrote to its author, “A thousand thanks.”

A year later, when jury members for the Paris World’s Fair deemed Manet’s submissions too radical, the painter erected a pavilion on the edge of the fairgrounds where visitors could judge his work for themselves. His co-conspirator in this guerilla exhibition was none other than Zola, who republished his article as a booklet titled Une nouvelle manière en peinture (A New Manner in Painting) on the occasion. To show his gratitude, Manet painted the writer’s portrait in January 1868. Depicting Zola as a connoisseur and scholar, Manet surrounded him with both art (a Japanese print, an engraving after Velázquez and an etching of Manet’s own Olympia) and books (including, of course, Zola’s own Une nouvelle manière en peinture).

More even than Manet, Cézanne was Zola’s closest friend in these early years. Having grown up together in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne and Zola exchanged frequent letters through their teens and twenties, full of artistic ideas, professional ambitions and even poetry. But the writer grew gradually dissatisfied with his schoolmate’s progress. Their friendship ended, and in 1886 Zola published L’oeuvre (The Masterpiece), a searing portrait of an avant-garde artist whose work erupts into incoherence as his life descends into despair. His model for the character was Cézanne, whom Zola would later describe as “an aborted great talent.”

Of the whole Impressionist group, Cézanne was the least understood by his contemporaries. Stung by the unusually harsh criticism that greeted his work at the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Cézanne effectively withdrew from public exhibition for nearly 20 years, reemerging in a series of shows mounted by the progressive dealer Ambroise Vollard from 1895 onward, when Cézanne came to be appreciated at last as the father of modern art. After his withdrawal from the public eye in the late 1870s, Cézanne began to spend more time on his family’s property outside of Aix. There he focused on local landscapes, kitchen still lifes and a narrow cast of domestic models: his wife, himself, their maid and the peasants who worked on the family estate.

The Card Players, painted between 1892 and 1896, belongs to this last category, representing two workers, seated at a table, playing cards. The deceptive simplicity of the scene, its pyramidal composition and network of short, hatch-like brushstrokes are all characteristics of Cézanne’s mature style. The painting is apparently the first of three versions of the same composition that the artist made in the early 1890s (the others belong to the Courtauld Gallery in London and the Royal Family of Qatar). Cézanne’s sometimes agonized perfectionism drove him back to the same themes again and again, struggling to understand and convey not only what he saw but also how he saw it. If Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 shows us the face of advanced painting around 1870, when artists in the wake of Manet struggled to balance a hard-edged realism with a new interest in pure painting, The Card Players suggests a later struggle, one that Picasso and Matisse would take up in the succeeding decades: to explore the boundaries between form and perception, representation and abstraction.

Simultaneous to this installation, three masterpieces from the Norton Simon Museum, Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867–68, and Édouard Vuillard’s First Fruits, 1899, will be on view at the Musée d’Orsay. 

Independent tour operators are not permitted to conduct tours in the exhibition Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.