Laberge on Antonova and Eyerman, eds. (2002)

Antonova, Irina A. and Charlotte Eyerman. Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow. New Haven, London, and Houston: Yale University Press and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, 2002. Pp. xii+244. ISBN: 0-300-09736-0 (cloth)

This weighty tome on classic French painting from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, which includes examples from Impressionism and Cubism, gathers a large number of rare paintings and masterpieces from the greatest French painters. The paradox of hard to access works by famous artists can be explained by the fact that many of these works are part of Russian collections, and therefore were not often circulated in exhibitions or reproduced in art books, at least in English-speaking countries, before 1990. However, there are some notable exceptions, as this book proves; these French masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow were exhibited from December 2002 to October 2003 in three North American art museums, in Houston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Art historians Irina Antonova, Charlotte Eyerman, Eugenia Georgievskaya and Elena Sharnova collaborated on all the accompanying texts.

There are seventy-six color, full-sized reproductions studied in this large-format book, plus some twenty-nine smaller black and white images, in these cases not taken from Russian collections, but rather used for stylistic comparisons with some selected similar pieces from museums or private collections located in France. The first pages retell the sad history of how this wonderful collection was assembled by two Russian merchants and art lovers, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, whose belongings were abruptly seized by the Soviet authorities in 1918, in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution (6).

The exhibition contains works by Ingres, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Degas, Manet and many more. The artists' names are too numerous to list fully and it would also be unfair to name only the well-known, since many of the lesser-known painters featured here have produced spectacular works. Among the seventy-five works studied here and presented chronologically, one finds Rinaldo and Armida (1630) by Nicolas Poussin, an eloquent version of the Biblical scene Suzanne et les vieillards (1715) by Jean-François De Troy, plus many Impressionist works such as Boulevard des Capucines by Claude Monet, and some magnificent Neo-impressionnist paintings like Near a House by Henri-Edmond Cross, who was obviously influenced by the Pointillists (201).

Lesser-known painters like Édouard Vuillard and Albert Marquet are given the space to reveal their immense talent. Examples from other artistic movements such as Symbolism are included with Eugène Carrière's dreamy Mother's Kiss, from 1890. The book ends with numerous, early works by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso (on the book's cover) and Henri Matisse.

Each work is analyzed in about two pages providing context, influences, aesthetic characteristics and symbolic meanings. Comments are always clear, interesting and rich in comparative perspectives. For example, the authors note the possible links between the representations of the countryside and the early landscape painting genre, as seen in the 1655 work of Claude Lorrain titled The Abduction of Europe. Elsewhere, the authors refer to Cézanne's correspondence in order to suggest that the artist could be seen as a precursor of Cubism or, as Cézanne puts it, that he "was born too early" (187). The detailed bibliographical notes provided after each of the studies are taken mainly from English articles and English publications.  There is no formal conclusion to the volume.

My only quibbles are with the lack of reference to the original, French titles of these artworks, which are not mentioned anywhere in these pages. The problem of ignoring the original French titles of artworks reappears in many other English books, not only in the field of art history. This sort of negligence is often an obstacle for scholarly research in aesthetics and art history. After all, these paintings were initially titled in French by artists who would likely not have understood the English translations of their works as reproduced here. Similarly, more references to sources in languages such as French and Russian would have been appreciated, given the subject and the fact that these works have been part of Russian collections often for more than a century. Comments from Russian academics would have brought an interesting point of comparison.

For scholars who study these artists and for art lovers who already have other books on Impressionism, this wonderful catalog of Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow will be valuable and does not reproduce other books' contents. As one might expect, the rare works reunited in this impressive book are breathtaking and the quality of the editing by Yale University Press is simply superb since they take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the large format to offer many full size reproductions and without splitting any paintings onto two separate pages. The special attention given to the size of reproductions makes this book unique when compared with similar publications on the same topic.