fb-pixel Skip to main content

At the Clark, a glimpse of a French cultural storehouse

‘Promenades on Paper’ presents an eclectic sampling of drawings from the sprawling holdings of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, "Académie," c. 1751. Collection of Bibliothèque nationale de France.The Clark Art Institute

WILLIAMSTOWN — The Bibliothèque nationale de France, a centuries-old storehouse of small-scale cultural treasures — prints and drawings, manuscripts and correspondence, pamphlets, leaflets, novels, posters, photographs, periodicals, and more — measures its holdings not only in numbers of objects, but quite literally in kilometers. The official repository of everything published in the country, the BnF’s main collection counts more than 15 million individual pieces; think of it as the Library of Congress with 400-plus years’ headstart. King Charles V established a royal library housed in the Louvre Palace in 1368, and things have been piling up ever since.

That makes any effort to showcase its holdings equal parts scholarly endeavor and spelunking expedition. Olivier Meslay, the director of the Clark Art Institute, first broached the idea of just such an exploration in 2017 over dinner with Corinne Le Bitouzé, deputy head of the prints and photographs department of the BnF in Paris. Her quick, cheerful “yes” came with a revelation: Underneath the Bibliothèque’s 15 million object main collection lived another storehouse, just as vast and substantially less well-organized. Meslay’s stomach dropped. “I am still haunted by this discovery,” he wrote.


Those words appear in his foreword to “Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France,” the handsome tome that accompanies the Clark’s exhibition of the same name, which opened late last month. So, yes: Despite Meslay’s anxieties, it actually happened. The qualifier, of course, is that both the book and show represent only the smallest snippet of the BnF’s holdings, and maybe not even its best. As exhibition curator Sarah Grandin explained to me on a recent walk-through, the miles and miles of BnF materials don’t adhere to a single organizational logic. Some portions are organized by date, others by region or subject, some by artist or architect — the list goes on.

François-Joseph Bélanger, The Garden of Beaumarchais, 1788. Collection of Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Clark Art Institute

All of it makes “Promenades on Paper” more than a little messy, often gloriously so. There are weird archaic contraptions to magnify and frame drawings for closer viewing, and plenty of works attributed to no one, their author and function lost to the ages.


The show divines no overriding theme, but offers snapshot-size views into the wildly idiosyncratic holdings of one of the world’s ultimate omnibus institutions. I found my mind wandering from the pieces in front of me to their tens of thousands of close cousins deep in subterranean storage somewhere below Paris. Why this, and not that? What matters, and why? Those questions are as persistent as they are unanswerable. Even in this brief skim, I could feel the crushing weight of the unknowable measured against the light imprint of an exhibition, this or any other. I felt small. We all should. Because we are.

Inevitably, Grandin’s task for “Promenades on Paper” was radical reduction. Her work had as much focus as the BnF could allow: Mostly within Le Bitouzé’s department, she sifted reams of items from its rarely seen collection of drawings — a mere 200,000 pieces, amid the millions. Assigning a logic prior to her labor would have made no sense; who could say what she might have found? “Promenades on Paper” is an exercise in retrofit, tied loosely to 18th-century trends, mores, and social structures — a fluid time of tumultuous change, capped with a revolution.


Étienne-Louis Boullée, "Interior View of a Museum," 1785. Collection of Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Clark Art Institute

The show is one of both foundational basics and high drama: It begins with a smattering of drawings, a skill essential to the education of children in high-ranking families. To put a fine point on it, a framed set of five — of houses, barns, and a dog and fox — were done by King Louis XV in 1717, when he was 7. They’re good (remarkable, even) for a 7-year-old, though one, I’d guess, with lots of help. The discipline’s esteem is more clear in “Academie,” 1751, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. His drawing of a reclining nude male is virtuosic in the fineness of its line and the subtlety of shadow and light, and all the more so in it being rendered using chalk, soft and fussy at the best of times. Greuze titled it so simply because it was an academic staple: life drawing, from a model.

The practice of drawing was a staple of upper-crust French life in the 18th century. We also learn, both from the show and the reams of unattributed works in the BnF’s archives, that drawing ranked well below painting, which was unequivocally revered as high art. Even so, drawing yielded innovation and revelation in gifted hands: “The Banquet of Cleopatra,” a small black-chalk counterproof here by Jean-Honoré Fragonard from 1761-63, has the spectral quality of a fading dream; it was produced by taking an impression of his original chalk drawing pressed into a fresh surface, a sort of one-off print that enjoyed a moment in the era.


Printmaking was nascent, and drawing was its closest relation, being small scale and easily copied — art for the masses, and hardly seen as art at all. Drawing is a staple in the collection of any serious museum now, but the BnF’s drawing archive reflects the schism. Plenty of the drawings are anonymous, made not with the lofty goal of artmaking but the more prosaic task of documenting a building, object, or scene.

Louis René Bouquet, "Ixion Chained to the Wheel," c. 1750-90. Collection of Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Clark Art Institute

Those kinds of arbitrary divisions are more fluid now than ever, but as long ago as the mid-19th century, Henri Delaborde, the curator in charge of the BnF’s drawing collection, pleaded for a broader view. “Where does art begin, and where does technique end?” he once wrote, as the French culture ministry mulled relocating the BnF’s acknowledged master drawings to the Louvre. “What limits should we assign to each of them?”

In its own way, the idiosyncrasies of the BnF collection are an argument for very few limits indeed, with objective quality the only rule. And so, in one section loosely about speculative nationalist architecture, we have the mesmerizing ink drawings of Étienne-Louis Boullée — of the majestic orb of a cenotaph he imagined for Sir Isaac Newton, of a grand museum open to the sky — alongside a slate of works by artists whose names are now long lost.

Curiously among them is perhaps my very favorite thing here: Louis René Bouquet’s “Ixion Chained to the Wheel,” a little drawing made sometime after 1750 of the title character gnawed by snakes and lashed to a spiked wheel, spinning eternally in hell. It’s wildly melodramatic, beautifully made — the drawing itself is inscribed into the matting, a little self-conscious meta gesture that makes it feel almost contemporary — and bears no relation to anything else in the room.


Left: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, "Sale Announcement," 1776; Right: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, "Catalogue des tableaux, figures de bronze, de marbre, et de terre cuite par Le Quesnoy & autres maitres: Des Porcelaines & autres effets curieux du Cabinet de M***, (Jean-Antoine Vassal de Saint-Hubert) January 17," 1774. Collection of Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Clark Art Institute

Such, I think, is the BnF. Such is art? Maybe so. Many eclectic wonders remain: A slate of natural history drawings — shells and flowers and an unnervingly precise rendering of a rock — done by women, not allowed in life-drawing studios with nude models. There’s a portion devoted to drawings of the revolution, complete with heads on pikes. And a highlight at the very end is a truly exquisite selection of works by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, and several of his illustration-filled journals, that could easily be the basis of a PhD thesis on their own, and probably are.

“Promenades on Paper” is like that, with no clear path or priority, a mirror of the institution it borrows from; what it also borrows is some of its magic, and wonder, and the unruly glory of the time and place it comes from.


At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through March 12. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.