Treasures in Black and White
"Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais. The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, that were donated by his brother in 1902. The collection has subsequently been enlarged to include modern prints.
Dutuit was a self-taught collector, who began buying prints in 1830, and continued until his death in 1886. He became an authority on prints; in 1883 he published a two-volume catalogue of Rembrandt's works. His collection eventually included nearly complete sets of the graphic work of the three great Old Master printmakers, Durer, Callot, and Rembrandt.
The first room of the exhibition displays two dozen prints by Durer, including the famous "Adam and Eve" (1604). The second room is devoted to Callot, including the amazing "Fair of Impruneta" (1620), with 1300 individual figures, and the fantastic "Temptation of St. Anthony" (1635), with its bizarre imaginary demons.
The two following rooms feature Goya and Rembrandt. The Rembrandts include the "Hundred Guilder Print" (1649) and the magisterial "Three Crosses" (1653). Rembrandt's uncanny ability to create real people with a few lines is displayed in four small etchings of beggars, and four small self-portraits. A surprise is a little-known painting - a very early self-portrait of the 25-year-old artist that Dutuit bought at auction in 1840. Another fascinating surprise is Goya's etched tribute to Velazquez's Las Meninas.
This sequence of rooms dramatically contrasts the two great conceptual printmakers, Durer and Callot, with the even greater experimentalists Rembrandt and Goya. The certainty and clarity of the two conceptual masters stand in stark opposition to the sketchy and atmospheric images of the experimentalists: the hard edges of the former precede the softened contours of the latter.
The advent of lithography in the 19th century is represented by Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen, but the strength of the collection is in the Old Masters.
This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment. Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard, for the Louvre and the Bibliotheque Nationale also have enormous print collections that are rarely exhibited. Contrary to its name, the Petit Palais is enormous. It is difficult to believe that it cannot spare a few of its palatial rooms to devote permanently to presentation of its black and white treasures to the public.