Critics’ Picks

René Rimbert, The Douanier Rousseau rising to glory and entering into posterity, 1926, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 22''.

René Rimbert, The Douanier Rousseau rising to glory and entering into posterity, 1926, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 22''.


From the Douanier Rousseau to Séraphine: The Great Naive Masters

Musée Maillol
61, rue de Grenelle (Reopening September 2017)
September 11, 2019–February 23, 2020

This is the first large-scale exhibition focused on the “Naives,” a loose coalition of self-taught painters so called because their delightfully amateurish canvases were reminiscent of those by the original “naive master,” Henri Rousseau (1844–1910). Organized by theme—with galleries dedicated to landscapes and seascapes, florals and animals, still lifes and portraits—the show provides a comprehensive introduction to the circle, active until the mid-twentieth century yet since largely forgotten to art history.

Unlike the Realists or Impressionists who preceded them, the Naives did not distinguish themselves by their choice of subject matter. Rather, they possessed a talent—likely, unintentional—for rendering classical, and even sentimental, fare vivid and bizarre through flat perspective, abridged brushwork, and folksy detailing. It is for this reason that they were admired by a new generation of modernists, notably Picasso, interested in creating pure and essentialized formal vocabularies. Take, for example, Louis Vivin’s Paris, Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre (Paris, Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre), 1930, which shows the famous hilltop church and gardens seen as if through the eyes of a child, a far cry from its slick tourist postcard representations. Here, the landmark looks more cartoonish than majestic—painted at a comically gigantic scale and surrounded by broccoli trees and stick-figure pedestrians. An ensemble so awkward as to be completely, ineffably charming.

Beyond rediscovering the Naives, the exhibition pays overdue homage to Dina Vierny. A founder of the Musée Maillol, she is typically remembered as Aristide Maillol’s muse: She was, to quote her unfortunate New York Times obituary, “the model whose ample flesh and soft curves inspired the sculptor.” But as the curators highlight, Vierny’s contributions to twentieth-century art extended far beyond her physique. An owner of the prominent postwar Galerie Dina Vierny, she was an early collector and champion of the Naives, and it is thanks to her that their work survives to receive the welcome reappraisal provided here.