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Interview with Mary Morton, curator and head of French paintings department at the National Gallery of Art

Mary Morton is curator and head of the French paintings department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Her specialty is in 19th and early 20th century European art. She is the co-curator of the exhibition “Cézanne Portraits” that will be on view at the National Gallery of Art from March 25 through July 1, 2018.

In recognition of her significant contributions to furthering the arts, Mary Morton, has been selected by the French Minister of Culture and Communication to receive the Medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. The medal ceremony is scheduled to take place on March 20, at the Residence of the French Ambassador in Washington D.C. 


French Culture: How can you explain your passion for French painting?

Mary Morton: I studied French history as a university student, fascinated by the 19th century when so much of what we think about modernity and modernism was introduced.  To have lived in Paris between the 1830s/1840s and the 1870s would have been a truly head-spinning experience, so much changed so fast.  Artists of course responded, but they had the Louvre there, presenting the great traditions of art, and the rather linear story of French painting in particular, which established a dominant position in European culture in the seventeenth century.  Each successive generation grappled with achievements of their forebears, making for a fascinating visual narrative.

In the 1860s and 70s, artists were responding to the spectacular changes in the urban environment of Paris, and new, wildly experimental modes of painting resulted.  I currently traffic mainly in the “C” painters: Courbet, Corot, Caillebotte and Cezanne.  These guys are giants, and I have been lucky to be able to work on them.


French Culture: Why is Cézanne generally considered as the father of modern art and what is the reach of his influence in the history of art?

Mary Morton: Cezanne established the starting point for so many 20th century painters.  Under the weight of the old masters, whom he studied in French museums and, of course, in the Louvre when he lived in Paris, he set out to completely remake traditional methods of recording three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane. Setting aside the ‘trick’s learned at the academy – perspectival systems, modeling in subtle grades of black to white, the central role of drawing – he approached his motif with an intense visual acuity and sensitivity, conjuring his image forth on the canvas with strokes of strong, often pure color.  For portraiture, he reconfigured anatomy and conventional notions of space and volume to create vibrant, lively, totally engaging images of people. 


French Culture :  Why do you think that Cézanne is known first for his landscapes (especially his landscapes of Aix-en-Provence and of the famous Montagne Sainte-Victoire) or his still life paintings, and less so for his portraits?

Mary Morton: In an oeuvre of about 1,000 paintings, only some 160 are portraits, with the majority of his work done in the genres of still life and landscape.  So people think of fruit and plates and the ginger jar and peppermint bottle arrayed on the table top, or they think of Mt. St. Victoire and the canyons of Aix en Provence.  They do not generally think of Cezanne painting people.  So the great drama of this exhibition is to see what happens to his radical process when applied to live human beings, generally people whom he knew well – his uncle and father, his wife, his son, close friends, neighbors, domestic servants. What we found, and really, everyone must judge for themselves, is that element of emotional and psychological affect, the way he feels about his sitters, is expressed in surprising ways.  It is also a great adventure to see what he does, over and again, to the tradition of portraiture.


French Culture: When did Cézanne begin to become famous in the United States and what is his influence on American art?

Mary Morton: So during his lifetime Cezanne was virtually unknown not only in the U.S. but also in France!  He swaggered into Paris in the mid-1860s cutting a bohemian persona, exhibited several times with the Impressionists, once at the Salon, in the 1870s and 80s, then largely disappeared from the scene, living out his days in Aix and painting furiously all the while.  In 1895, Ambroise Vollard held the first monographic exhibition in Paris, several people were surprised that Cezanne was still alive!  He died in 1906 and the commemorative exhibition the following year was a watershed.  Roger Fry started writing about him immediately, establishing him for the Anglo-American world as the ‘father’ of modernism. Also, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, along with Alice Toklas, showed their wonderful collection of Cezannes to Americans who visited them before and after World War I.  By the 1920s, there were Cezanne paintings in the U.S., and Cezanne was a pillar of the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, opened in 1930. 

For decades, to be a modern artist involved thoroughly digesting Cezanne, at some point.  Twentieth Century American modernism is inconceivable without Cezanne.  As both Picasso and Matisse said at one point or another, “he is the father of us all.”



Mary Morton is curator and head of the French paintings department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  She received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in history, and her PhD from Brown University, concentrating on 19th and early 20th century European painting.  Dr. Morton began her curatorial career in the European art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and then as associate curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Her exhibition projects include The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (2010); Sur le Motif: Painting in Nature around 1800 (2008); Oudry's Painted Menagerie (2007); Courbet and the Modern Landscape (2006). At the National Gallery, she organized the presentation of Gauguin: Maker of Myth (2011), a reinstallation of the Gallery’s renowned nineteenth century collection (2012); and Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye (2015).  She is currently working on an exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s portrait paintings with the Musée d’Orsay and the National Portrait Gallery, London, and Corot’s Women, a focus on the female figure paintings by the great landscape painter, both scheduled for 2018.