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The French Connection 

The Virginia Museum offers a look at the beginnings of modern art.

Thanks to a relationship the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has with the French Regional and American Museum Exchange, art that showcases the wills and egos of French 19th-century artists and one of its patrons is now on view here in Richmond.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the Musee Fabre, Montpellier” gathers historically significant and lesser-known works to tell a story that involves the beginnings of modern art.

Although Paris was the cultural capital in the 1800s, Montpellier resident Alfred Bruyas collected contemporary art to rival Parisian collections. Convinced that his money and vision, paired with artists’ skill, could create a new and improved social structure, he befriended many artists, commissioned art and encouraged a round-table atmosphere among his entourage.

This sampling from Bruyas’ collection, smartly curated by museum Director Michael Brand and Associate Director for Exhibitions and Collections Management Kathleen Morris, illustrates the charged atmosphere artists were working in at the time. Conflicting tastes between academic art and new art leaning away from false heroics created debate not just in the French salons but in journals and on the street. Bruyas contributed to the discourse by supporting some of the very artists who were causing the stir.

In 1855, When Gustave Courbet was denied acceptance to the International Exhibition because his paintings of common individuals were deemed too crude, he set them up for view outside the gates of the World’s Fair. Courbet’s gumption exemplifies his and other independent artists’ determination to forge forward, away from the constraints of conventional painting. Two of Courbet’s most controversial paintings, “The Bathers” and “The Meeting,” also known as “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!”, both included in this exhibit, seem demur, but the exhibition points out that at the time, their portrayal of common people in common situations was shockingly contrary to popular tastes.

This exhibition and its companion show, “Van Gogh and Gauguin: An Artistic Dialogue in the South of France,” make the case that Bruyas’ influence was far-reaching. Not only did he collect the works by Delacroix, Marsal, Rousseau, and Ingre represented here, but Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin viewed and were moved by his collection. Appreciation for Van Gogh and Gauguin’s avant-garde ideals will be renewed by comparing the vibrant works displayed here to the neighboring samples from Bruyas’ collections.

Viewers who are passionate about art may find themselves longing for such a stimulating atmosphere. The excitement of free thought and change comes through this academically grounded and enthusiastically presented exhibit loud and clear. S

“Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection from the Musee Fabre, Montpellier” is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., through June 13. Admission is $7. For more information call 340-1400 or visit www.vmfa.state.va.us.

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