The story of the National Gallery’s rich holdings of 19th-century French paintings began in 1942 when a small but choice selection of impressionist works entered the collection among Joseph E. Widener’s bequest of more than 2,000 objects. Many people since have helped the Gallery acquire outstanding paintings in this area, notably Chester and Maud Dale, who assembled a sensational collection from the 1920s through the 1950s, and both children of the Gallery’s founder, Andrew W. Mellon – Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce. The latter bequeathed her impressive cache of French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to the Gallery in 1969.
On January 29, 2012, the National Gallery of Art reopened 14 galleries devoted to 19th-century French paintings. During the nearly two years that these galleries were closed for renovation, many of the works were on loan to museums in Houston, Tokyo, and Kyoto. The reinstallation provides fresh interpretive insights in a newly conceived exhibition design. Thirteen of the paintings have been recently restored, allowing audiences to have a more accurate understanding of artists’ original intent. Gustave Courbet’s The Black Rocks at Trouville, a recent acquisition, also makes its debut.
The reinstallation uses thematic, monographic, and art historical groupings to organize the paintings. By avoiding strict chronology in laying out the design, the installation explores the idea that artistic production and creativity in the 19th century was influenced as much by contemporary artistic and social trends as by earlier painting traditions.