Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism Benjamin-Constant in his Time

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: Benjamin-Constant and his time

The exhibition was co-organized by the Musée des Augustins of Toulouse and the Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal.

The exhibition tour includes:

Musée des Augustins of Toulouse, Toulouse, FR October 4th, 2014 until January 4th, 2015

Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal, Montreal, CN January 31st, 2015 until may 31st, 2015

The inaugural joint exhibition between the Augustins Museum of Toulouse and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will be presented from October 4th, 2014 until January 4th, 2015 in Toulouse and from January 31st, 2015 until May 31st, 2015 in Montreal.  This exhibition was conceived under the auspices of the French Regional American Museum Exchange (FRAME).  The French Ministry of Culture and Communication has labeled this exhibit as an “Exhibit of National Interest.”

The monumental work of Benjamin-Constant: The Day of Funerals. A Moroccan Scene (1889), from the collection of the Petit Palais was specially restored for this exhibition by the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. With this restoration, the work of Benjamin Constant in reserve for so many years will finally be exhibited at the Petit Palais after the show.

An Ambitious Exhibit to rediscover a major artist of Orientalism

This is the first retrospective organized to rediscover the French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant’s major work, which have been unjustly forgotten.  Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a major Orientalism painter during the Third Republic.  He is often confused with the politician and author Benjamin Constant, who wrote Adolphe In the tradition of Eugene Delacroix, who he admired, this brilliant colorist gets close to the Orientalism of Henri Regnault, Mariano Fortuny, Georges Clairin, or Jean-Paul Laurens.  Taking the stereotypes of the Colonial Orient, Benjamin-Constant associates lounging odalisques to savage Moors using gigantic precisely designed compositions.  His historic paintings of Biblical or Byzantine inspiration completes his Oriental blood.  His striking paintings give worth color qualities, which he expresses with a gleaming palette.     Benjamin-Constant is equally well known as one of the best interior decoration painters of his time and signed masterpieces for l’Opera Comique, the Sorbonne, the Hotel de Ville of Paris, and the Capitol of Toulouse.  Finally, he developed portrait art commissioned by wealthy members of society, which included Queen Victoria and Pope Leon 8th.  He was also a professor Julian Academy where he had several international students.  They developed him an international notoriety notably in England, the United States of America, and in Canada where he regularly travelled.  These aspects of his career and his portfolio are studied in detail in the catalog that accompanies the exposition.

Because of an intensive study, this exhibition or event will reunite the artist’s major works.  His most celebrated paintings for the first will be reunited and mostly restored for this occasion for example, Les Cherifas of the Museum of Carcassonne, Le Caid Tahamy of the Museum of Narbonne, Le Harem of the Museum of Fine Arts Lille, Judith of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Le Soir sur les Terrasses au Maroc of the Museum of Fine Arts Montreal, Les Favorites de l’Emir of the National Gallery of Washington, D.C.

Even if they do not appeal (lure), several major works are studied in the catalog for example the sublime Theodora of the Museum of Fine Arts Buenos Aires, which could not leave the country for legal reasons, the Portrait of Queen Victoria in the royal British Collection, which is installed on the mantle in a room at Windsor Castle, or the colossal Justinian of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL.  More than 60 lenders are participating in this exhibition including museums and private collectors from France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Egypt.

A Campaign of Restoration

For this exhibition, the organizing museums managed a sweeping campaign of restoration, which permits the rediscovery of many of the paintings kept in storage for decades and in formats outside of what’s known like Day of Funerals, a Moroccan Scene (Paris, Petit Palais), Les Derniers Rebelles (Besançon, storage of the Musée d’Orsay), Les Prisonniers marocains (Bordeaux), or Beethoven, la sonate au clair de lune (Lille) ainsi que d’autres toiles du Musée du Quai Branly (Paris) and the Fine Arts School of Toulouse (ISDAT)…

Given by Benjamin-Constant’s widow to the City of Paris, the monumental painting The Day of Funerals, a Moroccan Scene was stored rolled up in the reserves of the Petit Palais Museum.  The exhibition permitted not only its restoration but its framing and its reintroduction into the permanent collection of the Petit Palais where it is on display until it departs for Toulouse.

Exhibition at the Augustin Museum of Toulouse, October 4th, 2014 until January 4th, 2015

What would be more natural than to repatriate Benjamin-Constant to Toulouse, his family cradle and where he was educated?  Certainly, it was in Paris, then London, New York, and Montreal where he found success.  Nevertheless, the artist at the peak of his fame never lacked a banquet of the Southerners (Méridionaux) in Paris and claimed its origins with force. It was in Toulouse that this Parisian by birth was encouraged by his aunts and he painted his first uncertain works for municipal prizes organized by the school of fine arts.  It is also for this city that the French State acquired his first true success at the Salon, L’entrée de Mehmet II à Constantinople (The Entry of Mehmet II in Constantinople).  At the Capitole, the city’s emblematic monument, that the painter has his only large scale installation outside of Paris, the gigantic painting showing L’Entrée d’Urbain II à Toulouse (The Entry of Urbain II in Toulouse).  The inventory of the gallery [or His studio ?] was dispersed at the time of his death in London during 1902.  His works were scattered among private collectors; the Augustins Museum has no fewer than 13 canvasses: one Oriental history scene, four sketches, six portraits and one self-portrait, and one vanity, whose four entries during the last ten years.

The exhibition Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: Benjamin-Constant and his time will permit enable, particularly in Toulouse, the rediscover all the aspects of his work especially the sketches of large decorative paintings that he designed in Paris or at the Capitole, as well as his period of education at the School of Fine Arts of Toulouse.  His production as a society portrait artist and his teaching at the Julian Academy in Paris will be also in the spotlight through a series of paintings depicting both his commissioned portraits as his most intimate works.

Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Montreal, January 31st, 2015 until May 31st, 2015

The presence of Benjamin-Constant is also completely evident at the Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal, which conserves two major painting of his portfolio: Le Soir sur les terrasses (Maroc) and Le Lendemain d’une victoire a l’Alhambra (The Evening on the Terraces (Morocco) and The Morning After a Win at the Alhambra) are featured among his emblematic paintings, witnesses of travels by ocean liner of the artist in order to visit his American and Canadian collectors.  Recently, two other paintings have joined the permanent collection.  Permanently displayed, they have captivated the public.  The exhibition permits a deeper understanding of the international prestige and maturity of Benjamin-Constant in the Americas (collections, interior decorations, portraits, and students).

The first important exhibit on Orientalism in Canada, this enlarged version of Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism  will develop friendly, stylistically and thematically links of Benjamin-Constant with different specific and artistic circles close to the artist in Toulouse (Laurens), Spain (Fortuny), Morocco (Regnault, Clairin, Tapiro, Cordero), with the Oriental salon painting presented in Paris (Dehodencq, Debat-Ponsan, Gérôme, Rochegrosse…) and finally with his romantic model Eugène Delacroix.

Numerous drawings, photographs and documents will complete this exploration since Moorish Spain until the Morocco of the cherifas between mirages of seduction and masked realities of a republic of colonies.  The iconographic stratagem of a studio painting will be studied.  Benjamin-Constant shows a predilection for harem and odalisque scenes.  The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts invited contemporary Moroccan artists Yasmina Bouziane, Lalla Essaydi, and Majida Khattari to mix their visions with these subjects.

Exhibition Organizers

Nathalie Bondil, Co-organizer, Director, and chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art and Vice President of the Arts Council of Canada

      She is the curator of heritage specializing in art from the 18th century to modern art.  She has developed, managed, or been the chief of many international exhibitions.

Axel Hemery, Co-organizer, Director of the Augustins Museum of Toulouse, chief curator of 17th century paintings

      He is at the origin of beautiful discoveries of artists and co-organizer of international exhibitions such as Bodies and Shadows, European Caravaggism.

Samuel Montiege, assistant organizer, PhD in Art History at the University of Montreal

      He is a specialist in French influences in European and North American art.  He is also a specialist of the attractiveness aroused by the training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Parisian academies on foreign people.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, The Pink Flamingo, 1876, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Paris 1845 – Paris 1902
The Pink Flamingo

Oil on canvas

65.3 × 92 cm

Signed and dated l.r.: Benjamin Constant 1876
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Gift of Philippe and Michèle Stora in honour of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ 150th anniversary
inv. 2010.730
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest