Most museums display a fraction of their holdings, even as they continue to seek and acquire new works. The High Museum of Art, for instance, typically displays eight percent of its 19,000-plus pieces.
Happily, Claudia Einecke, Frances B. Bunzl Family Curator of European Art, has liberated a group of prints, drawings, photographs and sculptures from the storeroom to mount In the City of Light: Paris, 1850-1920.
Deftly woven together with loans largely from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Michael Schlossberg, they form an engaging snapshot of that beloved capitol — its rich architecture, vibrant streets, cultural richness and sassy nightlife.
In the mid-19th century, French poet Baudelaire coined the term flanêur to describe those, often artists and writers, who strolled the city observing its people and places.
Photographer Eugène Atget captured images of musicians and buskers.
Einecke and curatorial research associate Caroline Giddis organized the exhibition around four interlocking themes that encourage visitors to do their own flâneuring.
Along the way it is interesting to note the variety of ways artists chose to depict their own observations and visions. One might contrast, for instance, two etchings of Notre-Dame: John Taylor Arms’ view across the Seine River relays its Gothic grandeur, while Charles Meryon’s The Vampire brings us face to face with one of its gargoyles, a menacing vision representing another kind of gothic.
Eugène Atget, the preeminent photographer of pre-modern Paris, imbues his views with a whiff of melancholy. Even his photo of Le Moulin de la Galette, an 17th-century windmill atop Montmartre, seems more a reminder of the area’s agrarian past than the 19th-century entertainment district over which it towered when the photo was taken.
Most of the artists in the exhibition explored the excitement of their time. Louis LeGrand captured the bustle of busy Parisians in his charming drawing, The Train Station at Batignolles, while Georges Stein portrayed the crowded outdoor cafes in The Society Party. Leave it to Honoré Daumier to find the humor in the minor discomforts of city life – a rotund woman crowding another woman seated on a bus in his lithograph, Madeleine-Bastille.
In addition to their more, um, pedestrian uses, the streets of late 19th-century Paris were also fashion runways. In exploring the personalities of Paris, the curators offer plenty of examples of the well-dressed Parisienne, like the fur-laden lady walking her little dog (a common fashion accessory) in the Bois de Boulogne in Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photo.
It was an era of hats. They figure prominently here in images of women at the milliner, entertainers’ costumes and high society. And what a boon to artists of the period who emphasized the voluptuous silhouettes of era attire.
The curators suggest Paris’ rich cultural history through portraits of luminaries. There are three of author Victor Hugo, whose vision of his city remains a touchstone for readers.
Loie Fuller was an American dancer who moved to Paris and became a regular at the Folies Bergère.
In famed photographer Nadar’s 1870 portrait, he looks boldly at the camera, radiating confidence. In Auguste Rodin’s 1883 bronze bust, he has aged every bit of those intervening years: beard long as a prophet’s, head down, expression introspective. Frederik Hendrik Kaemmerer limned the deathbed drawing hung nearby.
Images of Paris as entertainment capital conclude the exhibition. Circus clowns, cancan girls, nightclub singers, dancers and their audiences fill the room. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph of swirling dancer Loie Fuller, a marvel of movement and printmaking, is a highlight.
That piece is one of 73 works given to the museum by major benefactors Irene and Howard Stein. In fact, another wall of Lautrec works given by the Steins awaits in the eponymous gallery of the permanent collection, where his poster of performer Jane Avril exemplifies the silhouette-hat phenomenon mentioned earlier.
Regarding the permanent collection, the display of which was an impetus for the show, it was a pleasant surprise to see examples of a group of posters Cox Communications gave the museum in 2015. They also add a dimension of larger scale to the installation.
The exhibition is on view through December 31. Fair warning: You won’t see these again for a while. Light-sensitive works on paper are required to take a six-year rest after hanging in the galleries.
Catherine Fox, an award-winning art critic, co-founded ArtsATL and served as its executive director and executive editor for five years. Fox was the art critic for The Atlanta Journal Constitution from 1981 to 2009.