It’s a stretch, perhaps, to link car bodies to paint on paper and canvas, but that didn’t stop a representative of DaimlerChrysler Corp. from connecting the two – saying they share “beauty, power, passion” – during Wednesday’s preview celebrations of “Cezanne in Provence” at the National Gallery of Art.
Everything in context: The company is sponsor of the capital’s latest museum blockbuster – a show of 117 works by the French master opens Sunday and runs through May 7, after which it goes to the artist’s hometown, Aix-en-Provence, where he lived most of his life.
Until then and even beyond, Washington suffices well as a haven for the great man’s legacy because a large repository of his works was available here long before the exhibit was planned to commemorate the centenary of his death in 1906.
The Phillips Collection and the White House (which owns eight works, four on display in the private quarters) are among the lenders, and there’s also the gallery’s own impressive trove of Paul Cezanne’s works from the collections of Chester Dale, Paul Mellon, W. Averell Harriman and Eugene and Agnes Meyer.
Washington is using the occasion to go gaga over Provencal life in full with a series of events planned at various venues during what is being termed Provence Week, beginning Monday. Restaurants taking part include the private dining room and cafeteria in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Atmospherics Wednesday evening included a trio playing music by Claude Debussy, plus an array of Provencal-themed hors d’oeuvres and wine. Then some 300 guests trooped into the East Sculpture Hall for dinner (bouillabaisse, mignonettes de veau, salad, cheese, oeufs a la neige) and introductory remarks by gallery President Vicki Sant identifying Cezanne as “one of the greatest and most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Observing the colorful surroundings (plenty of roses, lavender and other decorative flora) and the number of French citizens present (mostly officials from Provence), he led with a cozy line about having “to stop and ask myself, ‘Am I in France or the U.S.?’ ” before grandiloquently hailing “links forging the two countries” and asking rhetorically,. “What could be more precious than offering the very presence of Paul Cezanne?” The Provence of Cezanne, he said, “becomes the highest expression of our humanity.”
Clearly awed, too, was the mayor of Aix, Maryse Joissains Masini, making her first trip to the United States. “It’s magic,” she said – referring to the show.
Earlier that day, Philippe Cezanne, a retired Parisian art dealer, laughed off queries about why he doesn’t own any of his great-grandfather’s work. “That’s life,” he said with a Gallic shrug.
He grew up with some of the canvases, but they were sold. (Two of the exhibit’s paintings, from New York’s Wildenstein Gallery, would be for sale at probably stratospheric prices, noted exhibit co-curator Philip Conisbee, the gallery’s senior curator of European paintings.
Keep in mind, he added, that Cezanne’s “Still Life With Curtain, Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit” was auctioned for $60.5 million at the sale of socialite Betsey Whitney’s collection at Sotheby’s in 1999.)
Nor are the French ambassador or the Supreme Court’s two female justices lucky enough to have any in their possession, even on loan. Monsieur et Madame Levitte “make do” with a handsome Pierre Bonnard work in their residence, while Justice Ginsburg lives with a few Mark Rothkos in her chambers and Justice O’Connor has chosen a picture of the Grand Canyon by Carl Borg and some George Caitlins.
The focus throughout the evening remained the Provencal countryside glorified by the painter during his wondrously productive lifetime.
“You cannot understand Cezanne without Provence,” said exhibit co-curator Denis Coutagne, curator-in-chief of the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence, where the exhibit travels in the spring. And probably impossible, he might have said, to understand Provence without Cezanne.