Strolling into “From the Sun King to the Royal Twilight,” the new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is like walking through a corridor of thought and perception. It bends reality upon itself to reveal a time of revolution, both in art and history, that spurned the understanding of life and justice that defines our contemporary minds. Or something like that. It’s more like having a silent conversation with artists of 18th-century France discovering the world as they might have perceived it through their art.
The subject matter is diverse, ranging from exotic hunting trips in faraway lands to the portraiture of aristocrats postured solemnly in all their pomp and leisure. The energetic brushstrokes of Boucher present “The Rape of Europa,” – subjects from Greek mythology were prevalent in the period. The floating countenances of six aristocratic toddlers swirl on a canvas loosely ornamented with flowers and a bold palette of deep colors in a work by Lepicie, demonstrating the emerging genre of children’s portraiture. A visceral depiction of St. Peter brutally crucified upside-down, by Pierre Subleyras, identifies the Christian religiosity still influential in the art at the time.
The breadth of topics is interesting in that you can imagine the concerns of an 18th-century Frenchman. Royalty and poverty, religion and politics and history and literature are all captured in the aesthetic contributions of the century. The carefully selected works create a sort of artistic gestalt that encapsulates the concerns, feelings and struggles that were a part of the time.
As you walk in, you may first notice two upper-middle-class patrons of the arts who commissioned their own portraits. You meet them, notice their attire, see their world, their personalities and then turn around. On the next wall is a picture called “The Provost and Aldermen of the City of Paris Deliberating on the Commemoration of the Dinner Given for King Louis XIV at the City Hall After His Recovery in 1687,” which depicts, not surprisingly, exactly that. The rich clothes and plush dŽcor surround these royal gentlemen as they pose in easy contemplation. The Revolution never seemed so necessary until I saw these men kindly juxtaposed with some of their inferiors in nearby paintings.
Art is a representation of the mind, and mindsets are formed within historical contexts. This exhibit allows you to journey back into the world of thoughts that defined the time – and in their time you see the unrealized intimations of our own.
“From the Sun King to the Royal Twilight,” is on display until June 17 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.