Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art announces The Epic and the Exotic. 19th century Academic Realism from the Dahesh Museum of Art

The Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University is pleased to present “The Epic and the Exotic: 19th-century Academic Realism from the Dahesh Museum of Art”, on view from January 14th through April 1st 2012. The Dahesh Museum of Art is the only institution in the United States dedicated exclusively to 19th-century European academic art. This exhibition includes works from its holdings by such luminary talents as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, among other masters. These artists chose subjects that were often epic, inspired by the highest ideals of Western civilization, and exotic, providing a glimpse into distant lands, such as the Middle East.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae, 1896. Oil on canvas, 29-7/8” x 46-1/8”, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art

Featured in the exhibition are 32 historical paintings created in the great European art academies, which were dedicated to continuing the grand tradition of classical art. These academies were state-sanctioned institutions that trained artists to uphold the values of society. Serving as both schools and exhibition halls, these organizations promoted the ideals of classical realism that had been revived in the Renaissance and reached a height of perfection in the late 19th century. The art emphasized noble and moralizing subjects, often taken from grand episodes in European history. These paintings were executed with consummate skill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of all the elements of representational art.

The nations of Western Europe — and France in particular — had attained a high level of economic and cultural development in the 19th century and saw themselves as the epitome of Western civilization. Eager to reflect the values of their time, academic artists turned to the past to reflect timeless and lofty principles. They synthesized the best from Europe’s grand epochs. They borrowed subjects freely from both pagan antiquity and Christianity, viewing the classical world as embodying noble themes that prefigured the values of Christian Europe. The academies stressed flawless technique. Rather than emphasizing personal expression, a premium was set on producing paintings that demonstrated a full mastery of representational art. Raphael was seen as an exemplary master. Scores of 19th-century artists strove to emulate his ideal of elegant, noble figures rendered with clarity, grace, and restraint. Artists endured years of rigorous training to develop their skills in mastering the elements of pictorial realism — ranging from line and form, light and shadow, perspective and anatomy — all employed with the goal of capturing complex and idealized subjects.

In the academies there was a clear hierarchy of subject matter. The highest and most noble subject was history painting. This category included scenes from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome as well as from the Bible. These scenes from great moments in Europe’s past were believed to instruct and elevate the public by promoting examples of exemplary moral behavior. Other subjects were placed on a sliding scale of importance. The academic artists also embraced a new subject known as Orientalism. In the 19th century, Europeans began to interact more widely with the world at large. One region that captured the public’s imagination was the Middle East. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798-1801 stimulated great interest in the region.

Soon artists began painting scenes of Arabia and North Africa in order to give the public a taste for a foreign and exotic Muslim world that seemed so different from Europe. This exhibition also includes a group of genre paintings, scenes of everyday country life. As more and more Europeans flocked to large cities, the rural lifestyle seemed threatened with extinction. Artists looked upon these peasants as noble beings whose simple lives represented a lost ideal of European culture.

Before his death in 1994, Frederick Weisman was a flamboyant art collector, jetting around the world in a private jet decorated by artist Ed Ruscha, and sitting for an Andy Warhol portrait. After his death, Weisman’s legacy was a series of generous gifts to art museums in New Orleans, San Diego, Minneapolis, and at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University. This simple but spacious 3,000-square-foot facility features changing exhibits that draw from Weisman’s significant collection of contemporary art and travelling exhibitions. Past shows have included the work of Marsden Hartley, Italian neo-expressionist Sandro Chia and World War II posters The museum feature a regularly changing program of exhibitions of contemporary and historic art by California and national artists. –

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