Many Canadians regard a trip to Paris as a kind of pilgrimage to the mecca of Western civilization. With its wealth of art and architecture, the City of Light has always seemed to emit an enviable glow of high culture. But this month two Canadian women have provided ample proof of Canada’s own sophistication. Two weeks ago Van Gogh in Paris, curated by University of Toronto art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, opened at the Musée d’Orsay on the city’s Left Bank. It is so popular that Parisians have been lining up outside the museum half an hour before it opens. And last week at the Grand Palais, located across the Seine from the Musée d’Orsay, Ottawa-based curator Jean Sutherland Boggs officiated over the opening of a major Edgar Degas retrospective, which she had organized. Said Patrice Bachelard, editorin-chief of the respected Beaux Arts magazine: “The Degas show, especially, is putting Canada on the international art circuit.”
So far, the van Gogh show has made the deepest inroads into the Parisian imagination. Devoting a quarter of its front page to Van Gogh in Paris earlier this month, Le Monde declared that the city was in the throes of “Vangogho-
mania.” The newspaper went on to praise the exhibition for demystifying the artist’s genius, adding that WelshOvcharov “is a leading specialist of the painter van Gogh truly was and not the painter he has been disguised as.”
For Welsh-Ovcharov, the show— which runs until May 15—crowns a 20year career devoted to the Dutch artist. After writing her PhD dissertation on van Gogh’s work, she continued to study it and in 1981 curated a show of the painter’s works for the Art Gallery of Ontario. Welsh-Ovcharov spent three years sifting through public and private collections in Europe and the United States for the Paris exhibit. She selected 124 paintings created between 1886 and 1888—when van Gogh was staying with his art dealer brother, Théo, in Paris.
It was a period during which the artist abandoned the sombre colors of his native Holland for a brighter palette, while mingling with such revolutionary Parisian artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A number of the works depict the city—its cafés and street life—while one entire room in the exhibition is devoted to self-portraits. Painted in a variety of styles, they trace van Gogh’s artistic evolution during the Parisian years. Welsh-
Ovcharov says that she hoped to prove that van Gogh was a disciplined artist and not the wildly inspired—yet tormented—genius of myth. And for Françoise Cachin, director of the Musée d’Orsay, the Canadian curator succeeded. “She is simply the best scholar I know to do that kind of work,” said Cachin. “We are both very happy with the results.”
While Welsh-Ovcharov’s show documents a turning point in a great artist’s life, Boggs’s ambitious retrospective tackles a master’s entire career. Born to a wealthy aristocratic family in 1834, Degas abandoned his law studies to become a painter, setting out on a 50year career during which he established himself as a leading—if atypical—figure in the Impressionist movement. Boggs headed a team of five international experts who assembled the show, which is sponsored by France’s Musée d’Orsay, Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After leaving Paris on May 16 the exhibition will be on display at the National Gallery from June 16 to Aug. 28 and will proceed to the Metropolitan in the fall.
Degas was a timid, secretive man whose work, unlike van Gogh’s, reveals little of his inner world. “I want to be illustrious, but unknown,” he once said. Boggs—the former director of the National Gallery and of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—spent five years collecting the more than 400 oil paintings, pastels and sculptures in the retrospective (only 254 will be displayed in Canada). The paintings include studies of some of Degas’s favorite subjects: ballet dancers, jockeys and the race track, maids ironing and nudes. Said Boggs: “We wanted to show an intelligent, sensitive person who expresses so much, and the range in that sensitivity from the early works of a rather stable society to works of 1900, in which there is no longer that same confidence in the world.”
On her way to the airport after a hectic two-week stay in Paris, WelshOvcharov and her art historian husband, Robert Welsh, stopped at the Grand Palais to congratulate Boggs on the opening of her show. Boggs, looking exhausted but elated, declared, “There is a new Canadian maturity in cultural life.” Now Boggs and WelshOvcharov have spread the word about that new sophistication along the banks of the Seine.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.