BEWARE THE DECORATIVE EXCESS that leads to violent revolution. At once aesthetic and political, this cautionary tale provides the standard explanation for the relationship between the exuberant usable arts of the Rococo and the stern history paintings of classicism, as well as between monarchy and modern democracy. It is now on persuasive display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in two exhibitions: “Inspiring Walt Disney: the Animation of French Decorative Arts,” and “Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman.”
As I entered the “Disney” exhibition, I overheard a caretaker ask a tiny girl whether she recognized anything. The tot confidently pointed to a poster for Beauty and the Beast! Every historian must be thrilled that something created as long ago as 1991—let alone, as the Met exhibition proves, with origins as old as the eighteenth century—excites the youngest museum audience.
Curator Wolf Burchard has astutely understood that some of the Met’s least appreciated objects have become cultural icons, just not in the way the museum usually presents them. The Met owns one of the world’s best collections of eighteenth-century “decorative arts”; they usually languish in the museum’s emptiest galleries. Yet when Disney animated them into characters like the candlestick Lumiére in Beauty and the Beast or into scenes in Cinderella (1950), which features the heroine’s rags spiraling into a court gown, they have beguiled mass audiences. The Met rightly makes the essential formal point that Disney was inspired by the inherent animation of Rococo design, its kinetic furniture equipped with multiple moving parts and frothy ornament. To help us understand how widely this impulse pervaded eighteenth-century European culture, the museum cleverly displays a copy of a novel, Le Sopha: Conte Moral. The 1742 best seller, like many stories of its time, revolves around a thing that thinks.
One beloved Disney character, setting, or scene after another has been traced to objects the Met owns, among them candelabra, furniture, books, clocks, porcelain, and automata. The connections help us see underestimated qualities in the Met’s treasures. It helps that Burchard found a missing link in gouache paintings by gifted Disney artists like Mary Blair (1911–1978) and Eyvind Earle (1916–2000). The intriguing quirks of their colors and compositions barely survived the teamwork required to produce feature-length animated films. After seeing a ca. 1750–60 ottomane veilleuse by Jean Baptiste Tilliard after the Le Sopha novel and concept art for Beauty and the Beast, we may never again look at a Rococo settee without seeing the arabesques of its frame dance in our minds.
The Met should retain some display tactics from this temporary show. The museum has never, for instance, exhibited its deliciously bright, dynamically swirling Sèvres porcelain elephant vases and dining sets as vividly as it has on this occasion. We should not need Disney to justify theatrical flair, especially if it accurately evokes the uses to which these objects were put. Bring on some digital animation?
Behind the happy tone of the entire exhibition hover forebodings. Vitrines of miniature furniture and fairy tales show that Disney found it all too easy to infantilize eighteenth-century art. Walt Disney and his studio preferred Fragonard to David, and charming early twentieth-century children’s book illustrations to Fragonard. History has taught us to feel the impending doom of the ancien régime in every Meissonnier candlestick and Sèvres cup. The Met has reinforced this lesson by overlapping its exhibitions of Disney and David. The contrasts could hardly be more sharply emphasized: Against the sensuous arts of aristocratic daily life, the intellectual art of drawing; against the childish association with Disney, the maturation of David’s individual style; against the indulgences of entertainment, the ferocity of personal sacrifice to a revolutionary cause.
Perrin Stein, curator of the David exhibition, has assembled pretty much every important drawing or painted sketch related to David’s great sequence of prerevolutionary and revolutionary history paintings. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the momentum that led David toward each of his political masterpieces and from one painting project to the next: the annunciatory 1784 Oath of the Horatii, the declamatory 1789 Brutus, the unifying 1790 Oath of the Tennis Court, the 1793 martyr Marat, the conciliatory 1799 Sabines, the magnificent 1807 imperial Coronation, the elegiac Leonidas, finished in 1814. An entire history of the French Revolution is on the walls.
David muscled his way, drawing by drawing, out of the cumulus of the Baroque into the knife-edged lines of the classical. He relentlessly extracted increasingly rigorous principles from his compositions. The exhibition demonstrates how consistently he maintained an elevated pitch of didactic ardor. Don’t worry about the exact implications of the abstruse classical subjects David chose. It suffices to know that each of them was associated with a phase of the Revolution. Those phases did not proceed along one straight line. In the space of twenty years, an entire mentality collapsed along with royal government, a constitutional government devolved into arbitrary Terror, on the ruins of democracy Napoleon rose to imperial autocracy, and then monarchy was restored.
To clarify the degree of David’s political commitment regardless of the Revolution’s vagaries, the Met and Stein made some difficult choices. “Radical Draftsman” renounces the color and scale of David’s paintings (with the notable exception of the Met’s own Death of Socrates, 1787). David’s great painted portraits have also been renounced, even as destinations of his drawing practice.
Yet the most arresting wall of the whole exhibition is devoted to six portrait drawings. Stein herself calls them “his most singular and haunting achievement as a draughtsman.” David drew the six men in 1795 while they—and he—were in prison for their leading roles in the Terror. These were men who had arbitrarily condemned to the guillotine any perceived opposition to their escalating standards of revolutionary virtue. Nonetheless, the portraits register subtle nuances between doubt, defiance, fear, and pride. Their attention to mental and physical individuality transcends ideology. When it came to representing real people who had perpetrated the same violence he had, David suddenly expressed how complicated and contradictory we all can be.
These portraits unsettle our polarized expectations of the relationship between the Met’s two exhibitions just enough. No doubt a radical draftsman had to correct the abusive privileges of the artistic ancien régime. But from the luxurious usable arts of the eighteenth century shines a joy which reaches mass audiences, generation after generation. And within the righteous exhortations of David’s art flashes empathy with what all human beings have in common.
“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” is on view through March 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. “Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman” is on view there through May 15.
Anne Higonnet is a professor of art history at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of several books and many essays on art since 1650, on childhood, and on collecting.