Fantasy Figures: A New Art Exhibition in Toulouse

Blue boy

Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) Garçon au turban tenant un bouquet de fleurs Vers 1658 Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza ©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

Professor Melissa Percival, Associate Professor (French, Art History and Visual Culture), talks about an exhibition she has curated that is currently showing at the Musée des Augustins until 6 March 2016.

Faces, heads, bodies. A busy gathering of ragged beggars, dashing soldiers, haughty courtesans, absorbed readers and sleeping children. Young and old, tender and wrinkled. Flashes of artistic brilliance, humour and eccentricity. These are the key ingredients of a new exhibition of 80 European old master paintings that I have curated at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France.

Whereas portraits depict a real person in a well-defined social context (professional or domestic), fantasy figures are much more mysterious. They are hard to read with their dark backgrounds, minimal objects, flamboyant costumes and ambiguous expressions. Instead they lend themselves to fiction and dreams. When you ‘meet’ these characters it is not always clear who you are looking at: some actively engage with you; others make you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at all. This type of informal, experimental work was greatly admired by collectors. Our exhibition – the first of its kind – brings together works from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, France and England from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries.

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Bernardo Strozzi (Gênes, 1581/1582-Venise, 1644) Le Joueur de piffero (Il Pifferaio) Gênes, Galleria di Palazzo Rosso © Musei di Strada Nuova

The idea for the exhibition came from my book Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure (2012). Around 1769 Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted a famous series of sixteen fantasy figures that have long puzzled the experts. I discovered a large number of similar works by Fragonard’s predecessors and contemporaries that had never been compared with each other, or regarded as a distinct type of artwork. They were far too beautiful and fascinating to remain hidden in picture archives or scattered in museum collections.

I was fortunate to find a like mind in Axel Hémery, Director of the Musée des Augustins, one of France’s oldest and most prestigious museums. Together we made a long-list of loans, knowing that each would require careful negotiation, and that quite a number of our requests would not be met. It’s no easy feat to borrow an old master painting! I got to work on the catalogue, writing the main essay, shorter essays on each painting, and commissioning scholars to write chapters. Background research of this vast subject area tested not only my art historical knowledge but also my ability to read in several foreign languages.

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Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1658-1717) [d’après] Jeune femme endormie à la chandelle Fin XVIIe-début XVIIe siècle © Nantes, Musée des beaux-arts Photo C. Clos

After two years of preparation, the paintings are finally up on the walls. It has been one of the most exciting few days of my life, seeing packing cases delivered from all over Europe, and opened up to reveal much anticipated treasures. (Not being an experienced picture handler, I’m not allowed to touch anything!) The paintings were thoroughly checked by a paintings conservation expert before being placed in a pre-arranged spot and carefully aligned.

In the show we have ‘big names’ like Annibale Carracci, Murillo, Van Dyck and Frans Hals and of course Fragonard. But it’s also great to be showing the public less well-known but mesmerizing artists such as the Flemish Michiel Sweerts, who on his good days was as brilliant as Vermeer.

The designer has done an incredible job of creating an intimate yet dynamic exhibition space at the heart of the vast gothic church (the museum is a former Augustinian convent). Instead of ordering the pictures by chronology or artistic school, we have a less conventional themed arrangement: the sections are called such things as Musicians, Inner Lives, Laughter and Sarcasm, and The Laboratory of the Face. Alongside the serious scholarly purpose of remapping art history, the exhibition explores in so many ways what it is to be human.


Ceci n’est pas un portrait: Figures de fantaisie de Murillo, Fragonard, Tiepolo is at the Musée des Augustins from 21st November 2015 to 6th March 2016. ‪#Figures2fantaisie‬‪ ‬‬

Professor Melissa Percival is an expert in eighteenth-century French studies with research interests in Eighteenth-century art, literature and history of ideas. She has published widely on theories of physiognomy and facial expression.