The exhibition Drawn to Art: French Artists and Art Lovers in 18th-Century Rome features works by almost fifty French artists who went to Rome to further their studies. Some were teachers or students, others were friends or rivals, but all took advantage, in their own way, of the artistic effervescence of the time.
François Boucher lived in Italy from 1728 to 1731, but not much is known about this period in the painter’s life. Like all young artists, he studied the great masters of the Counterreformation, including Caravaggio. He was also interested northern European art, and his few original compositions executed in Rome are of rustic, rural subjects. When he returned to France, his paintings on pastoral and mythological themes became very successful, and he was one of Madame de Pompadour’s favourite painters. He was appointed director of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1765.
As a young man, Charles-Joseph Natoire spent a long period (1723–28) at the Académie de France in Rome. He was very well known in the French art world by 1751, when he was appointed director of the Académie, a position that he held until his death. Landscape, a genre favoured during his directorship, was the focus of the classes that he gave to pensionnaires.
Claude-Joseph Vernet lived in Rome for twenty years, and his reputation as a painter of seascapes quickly spread among Italian and French patrons in the late 1730s. In 1743, he was accepted at the Accademia di San Luca, and he began to have paintings exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1746. He returned to France in 1753 basking in an aura of immense prestige, which helped gain him admission to the Académie.
One of the great eighteenth-century French artists, Hubert Robert was known as a draughtsman as much as a painter. During his eleven years in Italy (1754–65), he produced a large number of sketches of landscapes and architectural ruins – whence his nickname “Robert des ruines.” His paintings feature fantastic interpretations of Roman and Parisian landscapes, inspired by Piranesi and Giovanni Paolo Panini. When he returned to Paris in 1765, his views of Rome, both real and imaginary, enriched his work and contributed to his enormous success, which lasted throughout his prolific career.
Famous for his genre paintings of gallant scenes, Jean-Honoré Fragonard lived in Italy from 1756 to 1761, and then in 1773–74; while there, he produced picturesque views of Rome’s surroundings and monuments. During his first stay, he visited different sites with Hubert Robert, with whom he became friends, and made many drawings of gardens, fountains, villas, and terraces. These subjects became the basis for the eccentric vocabulary used in his gallant compositions.
Considered a forerunner of Neoclassicism, the painter, draughtsman, and engraver Joseph-Marie Vien discovered his love of antiquities during his sojourn in Rome from 1743 to 1750 after winning the Prix de Rome. The archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, taking place at the time, particularly caught his imagination. He was director of the Académie de France in Rome from 1775 to 1781; then, he was the last artist to be appointed the king’s court painter (1789) before the Revolution.
François-André Vincent’s stay at the Académie de France in Rome (1771–75) was a turning point for the artist: the style that he developed there was inspired largely by Roman classicism and the works of the Italian masters (including Raphael) that he studied while in the Eternal City. Included among his many Roman drawings on a variety of subjects and in different techniques are caricatures of his friends. His painted portrait of the same period, Pierre-Jacques Onésyme Bergeret (1774), is an exceptional piece showing great spontaneity.
Although Jacques-Louis David is recognized as the most eminent and influential painter of the French Neoclassical movement, he created his masterpiece, Oath of the Horatii (1785), in Rome, inspired by a subject from the legendary history of classical Rome. Well before he became an extraordinary success, David stayed in Rome for the first time, from 1775 to 1780; during this time, he was as captivated by the seventeenth-century Italian painters as by antiquity.