The Measure of a Man 

Jean-Louis Forain -- Impressionist, satirist, patriot, and visionary.

Jean-Louis Forain, In Front of the Set

Jean-Louis Forain, In Front of the Set

As a result of Dixon director Kevin Sharp's far-reaching vision and collaboration with the Petit Palais art museum, "Jean-Louis Forain: La Comédie parisienne" — the blockbuster show that opened to long lines and rave reviews in Paris last March — now hangs in the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Social satirist, patriot, and visionary as well as one of France's most respected Impressionists, Jean-Louis Forain paints not only luminous landscapes like Woman Walking on the Seashore, he records light in all its manifestations: from gas-lit brothels to the bright lights of Parisian opera houses, from artillery fire exploding in the night sky above French soldiers to the light of religious experience so rarified that contemporary critics compared the emotional power of Forain's etchings The Prodigal Son and The Mocking of Christ to the works of Rembrandt.

The mix of satire and sympathy that characterizes many of the 130 paintings, pastels, watercolors, political cartoons, and etchings now filling the Dixon makes this retrospective a powerful chronicle of French culture from the belle epoque through World War I to the Roaring Twenties.

In Forain's watercolor and gouache The Client, the patron of a 19th-century brothel straddles a chair in a brightly lit room so that he can carefully study the women lined up in front of him. The Renoir-esque prostitute, far left, is nude except for the black cross on her florid chest, white high heels, striped stockings fastened with garter belts just above her knees, and an open dressing gown that frames her overripe body. The youngest prostitute, head-down and still clothed, sits in the corner of the room not quite ready to suffer the male gaze.

Forain employs Impressionist techniques to explore every facet of the human condition. Lamplight turns the dress and body of The Debutante into a dazzling white mist. The facial features of this girl are indistinct, her character not yet formed. Like the young prostitute, she sits with head bowed. And like the prostitute, the debutante is being trained to be desirable, to be accommodating, to follow a carefully scripted role.

Executed close-up and with materials at-hand, Forain's pastel and gouache on cardboard In the Wings is an unsettling portrait of sexual politics played out in 19th-century opera houses, where ballet dancers were pressured to accept the advances as well as the patronage of wealthy season ticket holders known as the abonnes. It is unlikely that the dancer in this piece will touch the emotions of the aging abonne with whom she flirts. After decades of assignations with his young charges, the wealthy gentleman's haughty face looks as hard and gray as stone.

There are no empty hearts, no haughty expressions in Forain's luminous pastel on paper In Front of the Set. An older dancer, face chiseled with character, sits in front of a stage set where a green lawn slopes down to deep-blue water topped by a pale teal sky. With a look of rue, even sadness, on his face, a portly abonne looks down at his potential conquest back-dropped by Forain's stunning simulation of the natural world. In spite of a world layered with gamesmanship and illusion, both abonne and dancer have managed to salvage some of their humanity.

In the lovingly and carefully observed, stylish but not stylized portrait Madame Jean Forain in a Black Hat, Forain records his wife's auburn hair, soft lemon dress, large feathered hat, and the subtle but unmistakably mischievous smile that plays across her arched brows, wide eyes, and relaxed lips. A capable painter as well as great beauty, Jean Forain proved to be a fine partner for her quick-witted, empathic husband. Artistic excellence and strength of family persist. Florence Valdes-Forain, the artist's great-granddaughter and the leading authority on his work, has authored a full-color 250-page catalog for the show that explores more than 200 of Forain's most accomplished artworks.

The paintings that fill the final gallery of the exhibit are a powerful last chapter on Forain's art and life. After the war and until his death in 1931, Forain recorded night life in the Parisian dance halls where jazz flourished, cultural expectations and sexual mores dramatically changed, and flappers redefined womanhood. With brushstrokes by turns fluid and frenzied, blurred and bold, Forain adopts an increasingly abstract and modern palette as he captures the energy that roared through every aspect of life in Paris in the 1920s.

Through October 9th

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