Centuries of Art of a French Garden, 2014

[Originally published under Oregon Arts Watch]

Someone in Paris is wondering where all the statues went.

“It is unusual to have to rent a ship and send over a cargo load of marble,” quipped Portland Art Museum’s Chief Curator Bruce Guenther as he guided the press and donors through “The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden” on a balmy morning in June.

The traveling show, organized by the High Museum, the Toledo Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum, is truly a multimedia exhibition; it showcases sculptures from the gardens, and prints, photographs and models of the gardens, plus a specially-commissioned short video on a day-in-the-life of Paris’s  most art-historical garden. It is one part stroll in the park and one part history lesson, a fact that Guenther stressed repeatedly as he segued from explaining the rich history of the Tuileries to the legacy (and future) of Portland’s own Park Blocks.

François Joseph Bosio (French, 1768–1845), Hercules Battling Achelus,1824, Bronze. Musée du Louvre, Paris

Most impressive at initial glance are certainly the huge statues culled from Paris and installed in the first gallery of the exhibition. Seeing them inside lends a certain monumentality that the open air might not (strangely enough). They are offset by the array of small photographs that are equally as poignant. And of course a show about the Tuileries would not be complete without some excellent examples of Impressionism. The deft brushwork of Pissarro and the sun-soaked compositions of Hassam are a fitting complement to the spirit of both the garden and the exhibit.


At the fore of “Tuileries” is a sense of rich, dramatic history. Transitioning from a royal garden commissioned by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century to a public space flocked with painters, tourists and vendors, the Tuileries has gone through several iterations and seen its share of strife, intrigue and reinvention. Guenther spoke about the garden being “built on the bones” of history, and it is obvious from the works in the exhibition that the current garden is an amalgamation of all those gardens past.

The Tuileries, as we know them today (more or less), came from the mind of Louis XIV’s head gardener: André Le Nôtre. His landscape architecture prefigured the French garden style and re-envisioned the park as a more public space. It is fitting (although a little textbook) that there is a portrait of Le Nôtre within the exhibition, along with his models and plans.

Childe Hassam, Tuileries Gardens, c. 1897, oil on canvas, courtesy High Museum of Art

Especially pertinent to a discussion of the Tuileries’ past is a mention of the five upheavals they have endured. The French Revolution, Paris Commune, Franco-Prussian War, and two World Wars all left their scars on this idyllic setting. The Tuileries Palace, home to the royal family before the move to Versailles, was set on fire and burned for two days during the ousting of Napoleon III. It was demolished soon after in 1871. The outline of its foundation is now home to sculptures and the east side of the garden.

In this same vein, during the occupation of Paris by the Nazis, the sculptures and architectural embellishments of the Tuileries were placed in trenches and covered over. This preservation of cultural artifacts can be seen in a photograph by Robert Doisneau in his photo Statues from the Tuileries Placed in Trenches (c. 1939-40). This, of course, brings the discussion back around to the idea of literally walking on history. The events that took place in this garden were varied and numerous, and the exhibition does well to string together a loose narrative. Guenther notes: “Photography fills in the story.”


In fact, the sleeper hit of “Tuileries” is this historical timeline via photographs. Photography was invented in Paris in 1837, so it is fitting that some of the earliest images ever created document the splendor of the royal gardens. As a city of multi-layered aesthetic history, Paris built upon its artistic past; the new camera technology justified itself by capturing the city’s past glories.

Especially worth noting are the works by Doisneau and Lucien Solignac’s Protection of Paris Monuments during WWI, Tuileries Garden, View from the Place de la Concorde (1918), as well as the illuminating works of Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both pioneers in making photographs and taking photographs. Atget exemplified the documentary mode at its most earnest, while Cartier-Bresson broke new ground by coining the term ‘the decisive moment’ and paving the way for later street photography. Besides being just a record of the photographic timeline, these documents give life to the history of the Tuileries in a way that statues, paintings and models cannot. Atget’s document of Pierre Lapautre’s Atalanta is a telling example (and it is especially strong given that you can see the actual sculpture in the exhibit). They give us a glimpse into the past unfiltered by a painter’s brush or a ruler’s decree. From the wartime records of Solignac to the street scenes of Brassaï, these works give us an unparalleled, and sometimes uncanny, glimpse into an era known primarily through text and artistic representation.

This is not to say that the brilliant Impressionist works by Camille Pissarro and Childe Hassam, and the grandiose statues of Antoine Coysevox are humdrum. They are well worth a visit alone. It is just that this addition of early albumen prints and real Atgets are what bumps this summer blockbuster into the must-see category.

Camille Pissarro, Place du Carrousel, Paris, 1900, Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Like the aforementioned photographs, some of the stand-outs in ‘Tuileries’ take a careful perusal of the space. And it’s not just the old, history-laden pieces that grab you. More contemporary works like Jaroslav Poncar’s The Tuileries Garden (1985) straddle the divide between historical panorama and a more modern sensibility. The misty black-and-white photo accentuates the landscape design and the way weather affects the garden atmosphere. Other pieces, like British photographer Michael Kenna’s Windy Trees, Les Tuileries, Paris, France (1984), take an almost abstract view of intimate elements of the space; by focusing on a specific piece of the garden our view of the whole is enriched. The movement in Kenna’s photo hints at an interest in natural events within the man-made green space, much like Hassam and Pissarro depict in their paintings a century prior.

Jaroslav Poncar (Czech, born 1945), The Tuileries Garden, 1985. Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris, Ph 1916 © Jaroslav Poncar

On top of the documentary, there is also an air of mystery, myth and intrigue within the exhibition that was hinted at by Guenther when he mentioned the clandestine meetings of both royals and revolutionaries amidst the hedges as they participated in “a bit of trickery [and] a bit of seduction.” This private, romantic nature of the Tuileries is pictured in Pierre Tetar van Elvan’s 1867 Nighttime Party in the Tuileries, 10 June 1867, on the Occasion of Foreign Sovereigns to the World’s Fair. The glow of the now-destroyed Tuileries Palace bathes the figures in a warm light that recalls the dalliances of the Rococo. And on the mythical side, Coysevox marble Hamadryade (1710) is a clear reference to the Classical past. Its Neoclassical style and subject matter hint at the artistic lineage of Paris as an art center, while also making connections to other works in the exhibition like the early 20th century bronze Mediterranean or Latin Thought by Aristide Maillol.

Antoine Coysevox, Hamadryade, 1710, marble. Photo courtesy RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY


But what about the Portland connection? Why here and why this? First, PAM has a history of bringing in large European exhibitions (see ‘Body Beautiful’), and works well with visiting curators to create large shows that will bring in locals and out-of-towners alike. But it isn’t just the ticket sales they’re after. The museum has jumped on the community outreach bandwagon to connect with people outside their walls. We’ve already seen this with events like Shine a Light, but this seems to be a way of getting people involved while also extolling the virtues of Portland’s history in tandem with those of the artistic center that is Paris.

Making connections between the history of the Tuileries and the South Park Blocks upon which the Portland Art Museum sits, the curators draw definite parallels between our museum and the similarly-situated Louvre (which sits at one end of the titular gardens). By bringing attention to the Park Blocks via history and European art, PAM starts a local conversation about greenspace, urban development and public art. Hashtagging “captureParklandia” all over their press and partnering with the Portland Parks Foundation seeks to engage a population that doesn’t take the time for a stroll in the park. Maybe this exhibition will help to inspire a new appreciation of landscape architecture, unseen history, and the importance of documentation (although I expect to see more Instagram than albumen).


“The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden”
June 14 – September 21, 2014
Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Ave