EXHIBITIONS / Art de pays that's a shade ordinaire: Provincial France has invaded the National Gallery. With mixed results

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL recently the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lille had a 19th-century feeling. I remember it as a spacious, dark place, sunshine occasionally piercing the shutters, with creaking floorboards in largely deserted galleries, a dusty atmosphere in the print room and a hang that had apparently not been adjusted, let alone rethought, for many years. These things made the museum more rather than less lovable. It is closed now, for refurbishment, and this is why the National Gallery has been able to borrow the paintings and drawings that make up the exhibition 'Tradition and Revolution in French Art 1700-1880'.

As the title announces, it is a largely nationalist show. Lille is rich in Flemish and Italian Baroque painting, but this is not the point of the present display, which looks towards the central and Parisian traditions of French culture. It emphasises the more severe aspects of painting during its period, and no doubt this is educational.

Here are some strict and revolutionary pictures of a sort that would never have appealed to British collectors. So the exhibition could be contrasted with, for instance, the view of French art that formed the Wallace Collection. Gaiety, flounces and seduction are to be found, but they have to be sought out. We are more likely to find stories of heroism, duty and sacrifice.

Even Boucher contributes just one sensual drawing (of a female nude), and instead is more concerned with political allegory. With his grisaille picture France bemoans the Troubles dividing her, probablyof 1761, we enter a public realm. But can you remember what happened in that year? Dutifully, I sought to understand the troubles in question but could not even discover what they were. Figures representing Abundance, Fidelity, Peace, Hypocrisy, Envy and Discord swoop through clouds yet never encounter political reality or the present day.

Technically, the picture is of interest. Even in his repetitious dotage Boucher was a more intelligent artist than we give him credit for. It is just that everything in this painting is so contrived and courtly, also terminal. Boucher, shortly to become Premier Peintre to the King, died in his Louvre studio soon afterwards. Not long after that - revolution.

The contrast is with the high propriety and social will of Jacques-Louis David. I cannot love his drawings, but one is bound to be stirred by the sight of these preparatory sketches for The Oath of theHoratii and The Sabines, the great pictures in the Louvre. The Lille museum possesses two significant David paintings. The first is early, a small version of an entry for the Prix de Rome contest, The Combat between Minerva and Mars, Baroque in composition and strangely coloured. The second is almost a mature picture, the most commanding if not the most agreeable work on show.

Belisarius depicts an old soldier who was blinded by his emperor, Justinian, and forced to beg in Constantinople. Pessimistic in theme, the painting achieves a comparable expression in its lowering lights and disciplinarian architecture.

Across the room from this large canvas is another gruesome classical subject, Delacroix's Medea. The magnificent murderess, having killed the king of Corinth, shelters from its avenging citizens while preparing to stab her own two sons to death. The story has a sort of sanctity, since it is in Euripides and Corneille, but still one wonders about the pointlessness of such violence. One theory is that it reflects a turbulence in Delacroix's own feelings towards women. The picture exudes his personal greatness and has a disconcerting effect on his adjacent flower piece. Good though it is, one feels that a tragedian has been made to play with toys.

Gericault's Race of the Riderless Horses is a fine painting but gives little indication of his stature, simply because the David and Delacroix paintings are so much bigger. Two studies for The Raft of the Medusa, however, are almost as dramatic as the final Louvre painting.

There are a number of distinctly minor paintings in this exhibition: some delightful and others - especially towards the latter part of the period - tedious. I enjoyed Jean Raoux's two paintings, Virgins of Ancient Times and Virgins of Modern Times, and Robert de Sery's Portrait of a Woman, odd because it was painted in 1722 but looks like a 19th-century German picture. One of the best things on display is by Chardin, who made art of the first quality from a genre considered to be minor. The Silver Goblet raises still-life to the level of religious meditation. It is quite large and has a lovely expanse of brown. The mysterious firmness of Chardin's compositions is often noted. He dominates his painting with round objects - a flagon, a plum, a plate - that each have both a different size and scale. Rectangular objects would not have such resonance. A simple device, yet no other painter has made so much of it.

A minor artist who gets a good place in the exhibition is Louis-Leopold Boilly. He is so little known in England (though he has a picture in the Wallace Collection) that he may turn out to be the revelation of the enterprise of bringing Lille to London. From Lille himself, Boilly's paintings often remind us that his home town is closer to Northern than Parisian art. Among connoisseurs, opinion is divided about his qualities. Some people scold him for superficiality and not really believing in anything. These moralists have a point, but art would be the poorer without painters of Boilly's type. I value him as a portraitist and although his ambitions were limited, he is, at his best, marvellously neat and individual.

Companion portraits of a man and a woman show various sides of Boilly's character. In one, a gentleman farmer has been building a little bridge over a stream in his property. It is absurdly rustic, and the still-life of carpenters' tools on a basic chair contrasts with his formal attire. The work of the artisan is thus contrasted with the hobby of a rich man and nature is compared with artifice. In Lille, they believe that the picture was influenced by English art. That may be, but no English painter has quite Boilly's good humour. The companion picture of a soulful girl in a grotto seems to belong to convention. Here too, however, there is more than a touch of genial mockery.

Boilly's native ability is demonstrated in five studies for a painting now in the Louvre, The Studio of Isabey. These are all portraits of artists who gathered chez Jean-Baptiste Isabey for conversation and, probably, conviviality. Modern historians look for programmatic intent in the finished picture or - worse - deplore the absence of such intent. But surely these vivid sketches indicate that his programme was simply to record and celebrate friendship between artists.

Community of spirit between artists is fleetingly seen in the latter part of the exhibition. Here are two paintings by Carolus-Duran, welcome because he is not often shown in Britain. Of his initial promise and intelligence there is no doubt. He understood Courbet, and Manet, and in general was alert to the trends of Parisian art in the 1860s. Yet already there is a fatal flashiness in his art. Courbet's portrait of their mutual friend Amand Gautier points up the difference. As for Courbet's major contribution, Une Apres-dinee a Ornans - alas, this is a ruined painting. Bitumen and litharge have come to obscure its power, though the canvas still retains impressive gravity.

It is the first of the artist's great Ornans compositions, a painting that says that modern life is lived in the country no less than in the town. Even in its present state, Courbet's painting makes a visit to the National Gallery obligatory. This is an instructive but not a wonderfully moving exhibition. Visitors may feel that they have most of the benefits of being in a French provincial museum without the additional benefits of being in France and near some provincial restaurants. Normally, such pleasures would compensate for the attention we are now asked to pay to poor artists such as Francois Watteau (a relative of the good one), Luc-Olivier Merson and Jean-Charles Cazin. Tant pis. My own disappointment is that we are not offered any sculpture. Can the National Gallery not use the Sainsbury Wing galleries to give us an occasional sight of the three-dimensional art that is so conspicuously lacking in its permanent collection?

National Gallery, WC2 (071-839 3321) to 11 July.

(Photographs omitted)