The Courtauld Collection at the Louis Vuitton Foundation

by Benedetta Carnaghi

PARIS – Tourists and lovers of the Parisian art collections have a compulsory stop to add to the already impressive list of museums to visit: the Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Bois de Boulogne.

The building, whose shape is reminiscent of a sailboat, is the outcome of architect Frank Gehry’s imagination. The whole project began in 2001, when Bernard Arnault, chairman of the multinational luxury goods firm LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE, travelled to Bilbao to discover the Guggenheim Museum, another of Gehry’s creations. Arnault subsequently met with Gehry in New York City, and then invited him to Paris where he visited the area where the foundation was to be built. Gehry, who had lived and studied architecture in Paris at the beginning of the 60s, was immediately seduced by the site. As soon as he returned to Los Angeles – that very evening – he filled a notebook with his preliminary observations and drawings. The result – designed using a combination of IT tools and more traditional models and drawings – is a magnificent and intricate structure of complex geometry, covered by glass sails and worth a glimpse, even just from the outside. 

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While the Foundation houses a permanent art collection, until June 17, 2019, there is an additional reason to visit it. A temporary exhibition displays the collection of the famous philanthropist Samuel Courtauld: 110 artworks, comprising 60 paintings and 50 drawings.

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The first room of the exhibition is devoted to the father of Impressionism: Édouard Manet. The visitor’s eyes fall immediately on the iconic “Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère” (1882). Manet’s genius lies in pairing up classical art codes with everyday-life characters. Here he asked one of the waitresses at the Folies-Bergère (Suzanne) to pose for him. The painting caused quite a stir due to differences between the figures at the bar and the mirror reflection. The woman is standing in a slightly different position in the reflection, as if there were two different women: one real and one ideal. 

The collection also features a copy of the shocking 1863 “Le déjeuner sur l’erbe”. The original painting is at the Musée d’Orsay. The first public to see the painting was utterly scandalized because of its juxtaposition of mythological and contemporary elements. Art rules dictated that a nude could only be mythological and detached from any reference to the modern world, whereas the naked woman portrayed here is a real one, and very tangible.

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The most highly represented artist in Courtauld’s collection is Paul Cézanne. The room devoted to him is testament to Courtauld’s purpose of promoting the artist. Among the masterpieces, “Les Joueurs de Cartes” (1892–6) stands out. There are five extant versions of this painting (one is at the Musée d’Orsay). Cézanne focused on portraying the concentration of the two player – actually two farmworkers that he got to pose for him at his family residence in Aix-en-Provence – absorbed in their hands of cards and isolated from the rest of the world. 

Courtauld also deserves credit for Vincent van Gogh’s introduction into British exhibitions. In 1923, he purchased Van Gogh’s self-portrait for his private collection, but also helped the National Gallery in London acquire “A Wheatfield with Cypresses” – the very first of Van Gogh’s artwork to enter a British exhibition. He also first bought Paul Gauguin’s artwork in 1932. Since Gauguin’s work was criticized by academics who saw his canvasses as monstrous visions with hideous brown-coloured women, it was a true sign of modern progress when it was welcomed into modern collections. 

Van Gogh and Gauguin had lived together for a period of time in 1888 in Van Gogh’s house in Arles, but on the 23rd of December the two artists ended up in a violent argument. Van Gogh threatened to hurt Gauguin, who decided to leave and sleep in a hotel room. Left to his own devices, Van Gogh ended up cutting off one of his own earlobes, as we can see in the famous self-portrait.

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Of all of Gauguin’s works, Courtauld considered “Te Rerioa” or “The Dream” (1897) to be the most representative of his Tahitian inspiration. In 1895, Gauguin moved definitively to Tahiti. His first encounter with Tahitian society, especially in Papeite, the capital city, disappointed him. It was only when he found himself in a natural setting that he succeeded in finding the authenticity that he was seeking. The painting, however, is not a realistic snapshot. It’s more like a dream, with dreamlike characters and many decorative elements that convey the artist’s inner world. 

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