15 December 2012

Arcadia in Philadelphia USA

The theme of an earthly paradise, or Arcadia, has been popular in literature, music and art for a very long time, starting with the valley of Arcadia in ancient Greece. If we had to summarise the concept in few words, I would say it was a place, in the past, with simple and ordered pastoral happiness. And it often had powers to heal the soul. In France, art historians cited Nicolas Poussin (died 1665) as making Arcadia his central concern.

But in the book I am reading, “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia” by Joseph Rishel 2012, it is suggested that the specific alliance between Arcadia and the state’s promotion of national moral order did not begin until a particular set of mural paintings were displayed at the 1861 Salon. These comforting murals, by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, were quickly purchased by the French state to decorate the new Musee Napoleon in Amiens.

Paul Cezanne
Three Bathers, c1880
52 x 55 cm

Art by Nicholas Poussin and Pierre Puvis in the Philadelphia exhibition really did display the high value placed on the Arcadian ideal in French art history. Of course changes were always occurring in French society. But in the late C19th and early C20th in particular, change was happening faster and more based on technology. Moreover it was a time of difficult and disruptive social change, so it was not surprising that artists and writers yearned for something happier and more predictable. In the new century in France, at least, the idea of a mystical place of harmony might well have become quite seductive to a new generation of artists.

The exhibition "Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia" was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012. The goal was to allow visitors to experience works by these three significant post-Impressionist artists, as well as the Arcadian links between them and other contemporary artists. In total, the exhibition featured sixty works by 27 artists! Moving beyond the classical treatment of Arcadia that had long dominated European painting, the avant-garde (especially Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse) interpreted it in new and very different ways. Their work in turn provided a foundation for later European, modernist artists.

Does it matter that I am reading a book from the exhibition, rather than seeing the paintings on the walls with my own eyes? Two factors make it alright. Firstly art philosophy is easier to “read” inside a book than it is to “intuit” from viewing a series of paintings on a wall. Secondly I already know all of the main paintings and some of the additional paintings very well. So the descriptions in this post will come from the exhibition catalogue-book; the analysis at the end is my own.

Inspired by his travels in Tahiti, Gauguin painted Where Do We Come From? (1897-98; Mus Fine Arts Boston) as an embodiment of his vision of Arcadia just before the turn of the century. Shortly after its completion, the painting was exhibited in Paris at the art gallery of Ambroise Vollard. Also in Paris at that moment were Paul Cézanne, who was working on a portrait of Vollard, and Henri Matisse, who had begun his career as an artist. Did Cézanne or Matisse know of Gauguin’s vast canvas?

Cézanne’s Arcadian ideal was displayed in the painting The Large Bathers (1900-6; Philadelphia Mus Art), which combined figures and landscape in a stage-like setting, deeply rooted in the past. Matisse was marginally later, completing one of his own largest paintings, Bathers by a River (1909-17; Art Institute of Chicago), in several stages until the middle of WW1. Matisse’s vision evolved from a stylised version of an idyllic scene to a Cubist-inspired representation that wasn’t totally blissful.

After Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse, the reader should examine important works by younger, more modern artists like Robert Delaunay, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau and Paul Signac. Were the three old masters good predictors of art to come?

The Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia exhibition opened almost at the same time as the 2012 opening of new Barnes Foundation museum, also in Philadelphia. Dr Albert Barnes, as discussed in this very blog, owned hundreds of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos and Van Goghs. The timing was intentional – to open up a rich dialogue between the two neighbourly collections .

I enjoyed the book very much. The images’ production values were impressive and the essays were well written. And the checklist of the exhibition was particularly well done. But I am still not sure that what united the selected works was a “shared view of Arcadia”. Or even “disparate views of Arcadia”. If Arcadia was a place in the past where people could frolic in harmony with nature, I would expect this dream to have had an ongoing appeal for many artists.

We know very well that a perfect, ordered paradise can never be fulfilled on earth, but I don’t think many of these artists were even trying! Just because a painting had lush greenery or the open ocean in the background, it doesn’t mean the artist was thinking of personal, communal or earthly peace. Perhaps he was more interested in naked ladies’ hips and bums.

Joking or not, I might be quite close to the truth here. According to the book, Matisse owned and revered a small painting by Cézanne on the theme of the bathers, citing this theme and these paintings as one of the greatest influences in his professional career.

Henri Matisse
Pastoral, 1906
46 x 55 cms

That doesn’t mean that the works of art included in the book weren’t modernising and exciting. Au contraire. Paul Cezanne was creating an exciting, new post-Impressionist world of art. Andre Derain’s works were lush, thoughtful and dynamic. Robert Delaunay’s paintings were a delight to examine.

But it does mean that artists after 1890, if they embraced the theme of a serene and joyous life in harmony with nature AT ALL, had to adapt it to the new and scary world. So were they actively engaged in Arcadian imagery during their lifetime or was the Arcadian understanding constructed around these artists by modern art historiams?

With hindsight we can see that the period leading up to the carnage of WWI hoped for serenity but eventually expected tragedy. The fate of humanity was never so fragile, as it turned out, as in the trenches of 1914.

Joseph Rishel's book was published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition was held from June-Sept 2012. Note that the city's name, Philadelphia, was Greek for brotherly love (phileo=to love, adelphos=brother). Not Arcadia, but a great place for the art.


Student of History said...

We looked at Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse in class, as well as Andre Derain amd Pablo Picasso. But Joseph Rishel's book is not in our library. Should we request it?

Hels said...


I will check with our library whether we have a holding of the Rishel book already and if not, what our funding allocation is for the next academic year.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, You raise an interesting point here that people can rely too much on apparent elements of a system of symbolism. The proper way to interpret is to notice those points, and use all available knowledge about the period, artist, etc., but mostly to look to the work itself to reveal what it is about.

It is also too simple to say that a painting (or other creative work) has one specific meaning. The work came into being to express a complex set of meanings that may even be changeable or not directly expressible in words. I would imagine that a painting created only to portray Arcadian bliss would survive the test of time.
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

Cezanne was not a timid painter at all. His works just exude self confidence to me.

Hels said...


Yes indeed.. I fully agree that a complex set of meanings may be changeable over time. After all, the original artist has long gone and probably didn't leave a full account of each work in his diary. AND each generation of new viewers looks at the old works with new eyes.

Even within their own generation, artists probably had a myriad of influences on each work e.g. what a specific patron asked for, what the open market would buy, what the art critics are promoting and ridiculing, the state of the artist's mental and physical health etc etc

Hels said...


I had no idea how confident and influential Cezanne (died 1906) was, until I wrote a conference paper on the very subject. Even post WW1, many years after Cezanne died, young artists were trooping down to Cezanne's beloved Mt Sainte-Victoire, trying to capture Cezanne's “realisation” of nature.

Kim Smith said...

Great ! There is pleasure of living that is very nice place that we have so many great spots to paintings - so many, in fact, that it is literally taking me years to find them all. When we were discussing where to paintings for sale. I hadn't, nor had he, but we'd heard it offered sweeping views.

Hels said...


Thanks for the comment. I wonder, though, if the themes truly were Arcadian, would it matter if beautiful spots for paintings existed locally or not? If Arcadia is in the mind, heart and history books, why couldn't the artist create the images in a bricked up prison cell?