The French Turner
Captures Light on Canvas
“Venise, l’Eglise de Crescuati (1870-80). © Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet
The lives of 19th-century artists were often remarkably short. A penchant for opium, a meager income and a tendency to spend a lot of time outdoors meant that many great careers were cut short by tuberculosis or other ailments. French painter Félix Ziem, however, is a notable exception, having lived to the ripe old age of 90 and produced over six thousand paintings. It is his remarkable career that the Petit Palais has chosen to highlight in the retrospective “Ziem: J’ai Rêvé le Beau.”
Though covering all the major periods of his life, the show pays special attention to Ziem’s sketches, of which he made over ten thousand. One of the most difficult challenges facing curators who wish to tackle Ziem is quality control – with such a complex body of work to sort out, deciding what to include and what to exclude is crucial to the success of the exhibition.
In this respect, the Petit Palais retrospective triumphs: though not short of material, “J’ai Rêvé le Beau” never feels crowded or disorienting; each piece, whether sketchbook, drawing or painting, is given the space it needs to stand out. The show’s internal clarity must also partly be attributed to the simplicity of its layout, which, rather than leaving visitors confused as to which way to go around the rooms, ensures that we proceed methodically through the six sections, starting off with his travel sketches.
This is as an appropriate place to begin with Ziem, for more than anything else, he was a traveler, spending much of his life overseas in Siberia, Egypt, Turkey and Scotland. This mania for border-vaulting does not leak into the sketches themselves, however, which are unhurried, delicate and precise, even when revealing landscapes of little fame or beauty.
The accomplished opening section sets the march for the rest of the exhibition, which becomes gradually more ravishing visually. Charcoal drawings of trees and curious copies
“Le Coup de Vent” (1840). © Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet
of Rembrandts soon give way to intensely beautiful paintings of the South of France, where he discovered the Mediterranean light and found that he could trap it on his canvases. Many of these paintings were created at the cusps of morning and night and are imbued with a fragility that proves singularly moving.
Indeed, it is perhaps Ziem’s ability to capture the turning points of days – oriental twilights and Italian dawns – that confirms his status as a master. This skill comes most entrancingly to the fore in his paintings of Venice, which he visited some 20 times, hiring gondolas for entire days to paint in the middle of canals. These pieces recall those of Turner and are similarly drenched in sunlight, so intensely beautiful that they immerse you in their warmth. It comes as no surprise that Ziem made his fortune with this series, earning over 200,000 francs in the year that they were sold.
“Ziem: J’ai Rêvé le Beau” does not say anything new about an artist who, unlike many of his less fortunate peers, gained worldwide renown while he was still active. It does, however, come as a welcome reminder of his brilliance.
Petit Palais: Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées Clémenceau. Tel: 01 53 43 40 00. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm (until 8pm on Thursday). Closed Monday and public holidays. Admission: €6. Through August 4. www.petitpalais.paris.fr
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