The French Connection

Jean-Louis Forain returns in style to the Dixon.

Evening at the Opera, ca. 1879. Collection of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then Memphians will have plenty to talk about on the afternoon of Sunday, June 26th — and for weeks afterwards. That date next month will mark the opening at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens of one of the most significant art exhibitions to grace this city in many years. And the most remarkable aspect of this major transatlantic cultural event is that it originated in many ways right here in Memphis, nearly 20 years ago, thanks to a visionary museum director willing to seize a golden opportunity to put the Dixon on the international art map, and a board of directors that shared his vision, and gave him the financial wherewithal to pursue it.
This summer, Memphis will be the sole American showcase for a blockbuster Impressionist exhibition titled “Jean-Louis Forain: La Comédie Parisienne,” the product of a fruitful partnership between the Dixon and the Petit Palais, the Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris. This landmark retrospective of the paintings, drawings, watercolors, and pastels of French artist Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931) opened in Paris to rave reviews this past March. In early June, 130 Forain works from that show will “cross the pond” for the gala opening here in Memphis later that month. Of these, 18 will be “coming home,” since the Dixon houses perhaps the most significant permanent collection of Forain’s oeuvre in these United States.

The story behind the Dixon’s acquisition of such a large body of a prominent French Impressionist’s work is well worth retelling, but first, for those not familiar with Forain’s work, here’s a capsule summary of this wonderful artist’s long and intriguing career.

Jean-Louis Forain was born in Reims in 1852, the son of a sign painter; like so many others of his generation, he made his way to Paris, where he became something of a protégé of Edgar Degas. Young Forain was a formidable artist in his own right, and his works were exhibited in four major Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, beginning in 1879, alongside those of artists such as Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, and, of course, those of his mentor Degas. Forain has been described as “the youngest and most incisive of the Impressionists,” although in later life, his art became increasingly biting, austere, and stark, as he turned ever more extensively to political commentary and social satire.

Forain has been described as “the youngest
and most incisive of the Impressionists,”
although in later life, his art became increasingly biting, austere, and stark, as he turned ever more extensively to political
commentary and social satire. |

An outstanding draughtsman, Forain later became one of early twentieth-century France’s best-known and most prolific illustrators, with his work appearing regularly in Parisian newspapers such as Le Monde and Le Figaro. Throughout his long artistic career, his subject matter was usually not the natural world of waterlilies, poplar trees, or haystacks so beloved by Monet. Rather, Forain preferred being a keen observer of colorful people from all walks of life, and it was scenes at the ballet, opera, racetrack, cafés, and other entertainments of fin-de-siècle Parisian life that captured his imagination, evoked his sharp wit, and catapulted him to fame. Said one critic at the time: “Forain is the poet of corruption in evening clothes, of dandyism in the boudoirs, of high life masking empty hearts.”

Jean-Louis Forain
French, 1852-1931
In the Wings, ca. 1900
Pastel and gouache on cardboard
41 1/2 x 55 3/4 inches
Petit Palais, Paris
© Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet 

Just as the older, highly regarded Degas was Forain’s mentor, he in turn greatly influenced the younger Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Even the most casual observer of the examples of his work presented here can see similarities in the modus operandi of these three artists. All three prided themselves on being iconoclasts. A quotation from Toulouse-Lautrec featured on the walls of the recent Paris exhibition proclaimed: “I don’t belong to any school. I work my own corner. I admire Degas and Forain.”

So how, exactly, did Forain’s work become part of the furniture, so to speak, at the Dixon? Flash back to 1987, when the just-appointed Dixon director of the time, John E. Buchanan Jr., bought one of Forain’s major pastel paintings, Woman Breathing in Flowers (1883), from Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City. The Dixon’s purchase of this quintessential Impressionist work in turn attracted the attention of Waring Hopkins, an expatriate American art dealer living in Paris, who had built a substantial collection of Forains in his Galerie Hopkins-Thomas. In 1992, Buchanan met with Hopkins in Paris, and after seeing the collection, he says, “It became a dream of mine to acquire it in its entirety for the Dixon.”

Admiring Hopkins’ Forain collection, mostly nineteenth-century paintings and pastels, was one thing; coming up with the funds required to make Buchanan’s dream of acquiring the entire group for the Dixon was quite another. Fortunately, the museum’s trustees worked to make the director’s fantasy a reality. More than 50 works were purchased from Hopkins for what today seems an impossibly low price (around $2 million, according to press reports of the time), and ultimately 57 works by Forain were acquired in 1993 with the very generous help in particular of Irene and Joe Orgill, Brenda and Lester Crain, the Hyde Family Foundations, and the Rose Family Foundation.

Photograph of Jean-Louis Forain
Courtesy of the Forain Family Archives

Jean-Louis Forain
French, 1852-1931
Madame Jeanne Forain in a Black Hat, 1891
Oil on canvas
36 5/8 x 26 ¾ inches
Private Collection, Paris
© All rights reserved 

John Buchanan, now the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has characterized his Memphis trustees’ decision to move forward with this purchase as “a rather daring opportunity,” but one which “virtually overnight” established the Dixon as a major international repository for works from Forain’s Impressionist period. The art press agreed; under the headline “Memphis Museum’s Coup,” the International Herald Tribune suggested that the Forain acquisition made “The Dixon Gallery the leading institution, worldwide, for the artist’s Impressionist period.”

Memphis readers may recall the major exhibition of these new acquisitions that was presented at the museum in 1994, with works featured in these pages. This show was followed by an international tour of the Dixon’s Forain collection during 1995 and 1996, premiering at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and later traveling to the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and the Fondation de L’Hermitage in Lausanne, Switzerland. Once back home, however, these beautiful and delicate works, mostly on paper, went into storage, to be protected from undue exposure that could cause damage; many quite literally have not seen the light of day since.

“We do regularly rotate two or three different Forains in the permanent collection on display,” explains assistant curator Julie Pierotti, “but given the delicacy and value of the collection, we need to do what’s proper to ensure that the Forains will remain a permanent part of the Dixon’s legacy.”

An outstanding draughtsman,
Forain later became one of early twentieth-century France’s
best-known and most prolific illustrators,
with his work appearing regularly in Parisian newspapers
such as Le Monde and Le Figaro. |

The Petit Palais came calling, however, in 2009. The Paris museum was eager to showcase a major Forain retrospective, and was well aware of the depth and breadth of the Dixon’s collection of the artist’s work. Kevin Sharp, current director of the Dixon, received a request for the loan of ten specific works, but over time, his conversations with his Parisian peer, Gilles Chazal, led naturally to discussion of possibly greater collaboration. And in what Sharp describes as “the blink of an eye in museum time,” agreement was reached that would allow the Dixon to be the sole American venue for the Forain exhibition once it left Paris.

“This is a tremendous feather in our cultural cap,” says Sharp, “and it’s by far the largest and most ambitious exhibition the Dixon has ever organized.”

In the end, 18 different works were sent by the Dixon for the Paris show, making Memphis, apart from works lent by the Forain family itself, the single largest contributor to the Petit Palais show. According to Emily Halpern, associate director of communications for the Dixon, every effort will be made “to emulate the flow and experience of the Paris show” once it’s installed here; the Memphis exhibition, she says, “will be an expression of the same vision.”

Jean-Louis Forain
French, 1852-1931
The Artist’s Wife Fishing, 1896
Oil on canvas
37 9/16 x 39 ¾ inches
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 

Staging such a grand exhibition, of course, has entailed a tremendous amount of groundwork. For example, the Dixon has had to arrange the appropriate permissions from a wide range of private collectors and public institutions to enable the art to travel here. Sharp explains that “we are bringing only the best from the French show” to Memphis, which amounts to 130 works. Even so, the installation, broken up into eight distinct sections, will fill up nearly all of the Dixon’s available gallery space. He emphasizes that the tremendous investment in this exhibition means that it needs to be “a winner at every level.” Thanks to the dedicated efforts of hundreds of volunteers, he has every confidence that the show will be a success. His focus is clear: “If we hit it out of the park on this one,” it will drive Dixon memberships, encourage donors, and heighten the museum’s profile both here in Memphis and around the country.

Clearly, an electric atmosphere surrounds the museum as the countdown to the show’s grand opening begins. Joe Orgill, chairman of the Hugo Dixon Foundation, so intimately involved in the acquisition of the Forain collection nearly two decades ago, is still a driving force in making this particular event a reality. “In my view,” he says, “it is not enough [just] to do this show, but we must get some theater in it.”
Orgill was among the 35 Memphians, including staff, trustees, donors, and other interested individuals, who had the good fortune to travel to Paris this past March to represent the city and the Dixon at the wildly successful March 9th opening of the Forain exhibition at the Petit Palais.

“Despite its name,” Kevin Sharp explains, “the Petit Palais is a behemoth”; built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, it occupies an entire city block. The Memphis delegation was treated to a private showing of the Forain exhibition in the afternoon before its official opening, to which they returned that evening. When they left, they were astounded to see that the line waiting to enter was snaking from the Avenue Winston Churchill almost to the Champs-Elysees. Whether or not you know Paris, this translates as a blockbuster.

Jean-Louis Forain
French, 1852-1931
My Uncle Gonzague, ca. 1910
India ink on woven rag paper
13 ½ x 18 ¾ inches
Collection of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Museum purchase with funds provided by Brenda and
Lester Crain, Hyde Family Foundations, Irene and Joe Orgill, and the Rose Family Foundation, 1993.7.39

Sharp says that in the first few galleries it seemed as though every third picture belonged to the Dixon, and he and the Memphis contingent were proud that “we were able to establish a wonderful, positive relationship” with such an esteemed institution as the Petit Palais. They were also thrilled to see the Dixon name and logo on all the banners and posters for the French exhibit. Sharp recounts one particularly funny story: When it looked as though the exhibition catalog would not be delivered on time for the opening, he knew just who to call to save the day — FedEx! And voilà, the job was done.

For those of us who did not get to make this fabulous trip, no worries; come June, we all can see the Forain show right here in our own backyard. An elegant black-tie gala – La Fête Forain – will be held on Saturday, June 25th, to toast the arrival of this landmark exhibition and to help provide financial support for it. This soiree, which will be limited to only 35 tables, will evoke Parisian-style glamour. A knockout nouvelle French/Southern menu will be created for the occasion by Memphis master chef Jose Gutierrez, and live entertainment will take place under the stars on the Dixon’s south lawn.

Left: Woman with a Mask and Black Gloves, 1894.

Center: While former Dixon director John Buchanan planted the seeds for the Forain exhibit, current director
Kevin Sharp (right) worked with the Petit Palais to establish Memphis as the sole American venue of the
exhibit. Making this blockbuster possible is the generous support of such Dixon patrons as Joseph Orgill (left).

Right: The Waltz, 1894

Special invited guests include Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais; Pascal le Deunff, the French Consul General in Atlanta, and his cultural attaché, Carole Scipion; and Danièle Pourtaud, the Deputy Mayor of Paris for cultural affairs. John Buchanan and his wife, Lucy, have vowed they will attend the opening as well, and their many Memphis friends are holding them to this promise. (“I’ve always wanted to be a Frenchman,” said Buchanan pithily in a San Francisco Examiner interview last month, “I just can’t decide which century.” Fortunately, the Dixon’s Forain exhibition will give him two to choose from.)

During the three-month run of the Forain show, the museum will be open every Thursday night, and an outdoor cafe service will add to the experience. Furthermore, a large schedule of educational programs is being planned to accompany and add value to the show. A gorgeous, full-color catalog authored by Florence Valdès-Forain, the great-grandaughter of the artist, who is curating both the Memphis and Paris shows, examines more than 230 of Forain’s greatest works. She and her husband, Antoine, will be in Memphis for the opening, and their daughter, Alice, will be working this summer at the Dixon, giving tours of the exhibition. This will indeed be a family affair.

So remember, the curtain on the Forain retrospective goes up on June 26th and will be on view through October 9th. For more information on the exhibition and the gala, consult the museum’s website at

For photographs from the Dixon trip to Paris, visit this post on Memphis magazine's 901 Blog. 

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