“Rivalry in Print” reimagines possibilities of rare print collection

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Print of LeBrun’s painting “Triumph of the New Testament Over the Old Testament” from the ceiling of the Château de Sceaux.

The Center Art Gallery is closed to the public this semester due to COVID restrictions, but students can and should take the time to admire “Rivalry in Print.” Though the full name (“Rivalry in Print: Art and Competition in Seventeenth-Century France”) may sound intimidating to non-art majors, the exhibition itself is exciting to engage with at any knowledge level, and is much more than a stuffy set of 18th-century prints.

Sourced from a collection called “Grandes Pièces de Mr Le Brun et Mignard” which was donated to Calvin by an alumnus, the exhibition was designed and produced by art history professor Craig Hanson, alumna Julia Bouwkamp, who is currently pursuing a Masters in History at the University of Delaware, and student Mary Najmon. It features prints from the works of Pierre Mignard, a French painter whose body of work includes many portraits and scenes from mythology, and from the works of his artistic arch-nemesis Charles LeBrun–the favorite painter of King Louis XIV.

The exhibition presents, “a very personal dynamic at work,” Bouwkamp explained, and “shows how artists in the period, like Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard, could use art for their own ends and personal advancement. This exhibition presents a personal drama set in and around the court of Louis XIV in which Louis, for once, does not occupy the leading role.”

Parts of the original binding are available to view at the CAG, and reproductions of the original prints have been cut and assembled to allow visitors the rare opportunity to view them as whole images.

“The finished project,” Bouwkamp said, “gives the viewer some sense of how monumental and immersive the original ceilings were.”

 A similar collection of prints is on display at Princeton University as part of a visualization of the majesty of Versailles. Originally, the Calvin exhibition was going to focus on Versailles as the theme of the exhibition, too. Once Bouwkamp began to think in terms of the rivalry between Mignard and LeBrun rather than the works at Versailles specifically, however, possibilities for exploration within the exhibition began to unfold. “Rivalry gave us a clear way to tell a story through the exhibition,” Hanson explained.

Styled after the symmetrical presentation of the bound collection, the exhibition presents the prints of both artists’ Versailles works as well as their round, religious-themed ceilings (LeBrun’s at the Chateau de Sceaux and Mignard’s at Val de Grace) in parallel, inviting comparison. “Exhibitions,” Hanson explained, “are not just things hanging on the wall for you to look at…you want a visual argument. Or at least visual coherence.”

Bouwkamp said in a press release earlier this year that the result of the exhibition’s focus on the theme of competition and symmetry “is mesmerizing and immersive and promises visitors a truly unique window into the rivalry between Le Brun and Mignard and the artistic world in which they competed.”

The exhibition itself, which one can walk through and appreciate in about 20 minutes, is only one aspect of the project. The exhibition also offers a chance to rethink the purpose of a venue like the Center Art Gallery, which Hanson said has the potential to be  “a platform for knowledge creation.” 

As one of the first volumes to present bodies of work by specific artists, the bound prints have something to reveal about the origins of modern conceptions of art history as a field which seems so naturally categorizable by producer.

Hanson explained that the exhibition was a unique educational experience for his Baroque and Rococo class last year, and many possibilities for variations on it remain to be explored in coming years. The exhibition may eventually grow to include an online resource as well.

The CAG is open to students Mondays and Fridays 8-5 and Tuesdays and Thursdays 8-8. “Rivalry in Print” will be on display through November 20.