At the Petit Palais, “Félix Ziem, j’ai rêvé le beau” could easily carry the subtitle “How to Make a Great Exhibition for a Mediocre Artist” (as it is, the title is best translated in English as “Félix Ziem, I dreamed something beautiful”). Because that’s exactly what the show’s curators, Isabelle Collet and Charles Villeneuve de Janti, did. The colors might be too flashy, bordering on retina-burning, but this thoughtful exploration of a now largely forgotten painter’s lifetime of commercial and critical success offers riches beyond what can be found on a canvas.
Before delving into the exhibit itself, a brief background on Ziem (1821-1911). If you haven’t previously heard of him, you’re not alone. But during the 19th century, this French painter, the son of Polish immigrants, was one of the biggest names in Paris. His contemporary popularity among collectors and Salon collectors attests to that celebrity. He also attracted buzz as one of the first artists to settle on the Butte Montmartre, what was then an isolated rural community north of Paris but what would later become the capital of the avant-garde. That move might have been the most cutting-edge statement he made throughout his decades-long career.
My tone needn’t be so harsh, though. Ziem might not have been an innovator like Monet or a grand talent like Degas, but he was a more than capable painter. His watercolors serve as a convincing example of the great art he could produce. “L’Avant-port de Martigues” — with a few stark figures and buildings dotting a compact horizontal landscape, clouds that rage parallel to the sea, nothing that ever touches, melancholic loneliness evoked in the midst of all that loveliness — is one such instance of inspiration.
But when Ziem discovered what worked, he didn’t leave it be. He upped the size, brightened the palette tenfold, and then repeated the exercise what seems to be hundreds of times. He overdid it, pushing much too far the limits of good taste. With a painting like “Le coup de canon,” he may have been going for a Turner-esque exaltation of light, water, and cityscape. But the result is closer to a crude postcard image, with its simplistic composition and jarringly rosy pinks and bright blues. The same basic elements found in “L’Avant-port de Martigues,” bigger but not better.
So why — and how — does the Petit Palais manage to put together such a worthwhile exhibit? The outright honesty of the curators helps, inspiring confidence in this otherwise skeptic viewer. A first frank confession, right there in the introductory wall text: “…the profligate production ended up spoiling his spontaneity.” No one is pretending that Ziem is a forgotten genius, but rather presenting him as an artist who functioned within a specific commercial and cultural context, one in which he learned how to thrive. English collectors liked watercolors, so he did watercolors. Orientalism was in favor, so he set up architectural models of mosques in his garden and painted scenes of the Middle East from his studio in Martigues. And despite his dislike of Paris, he traveled there regularly enough to touch base with the many art dealers who represented him.
Speaking of art dealers, consider that one of his views of Venice’s Grand Canal sold for 49,500 francs during his lifetime. Around this same time, Monet was selling his portraits for 2,500 francs. If you visit “J’ai rêvé le beau” before it closes later this summer, you may not recognize any of the works on display. Nothing here has been widely reproduced in art history texts, or exhibition catalogues, or museum postcards. Doesn’t mean Ziem is not impressive in his own way.