Louvre bets on keeping a Chardin bought by an American museum in France

On a computer screen, 18th-century French painter Jean Siméon Chardin’s still life “Basket of Wild Strawberries” is calm and unassuming.

His talent for capturing the reflection of light on the rim of a glass of water is muted in that setting. In person, however, she casts a spell.

“It’s deceptively simple, absolutely captivating and magical,” said Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, which bought the work at auction in France in March for more than $22 million. “The painting completely captivated me and fascinates almost everyone who sees it.”

But now Kimbell, whose successful bid for the work was first reported by France’s Art Newspaper, has to wait to see if she can actually export the image, which she bought from Artcurial auction house in Paris.

The Louvre has applied for the artwork to be classified as “a national treasure” and is seeking sponsorship to purchase it. According to French law, the export can be frozen for 30 months or two and a half years.

“We are fully mobilized to incorporate it into the national collection,” Laurence des Cars, president and director of the Louvre, told Le Figaro in March.

The Louvre reportedly has 41 works in its collection by Chardin, who often portrays fruits such as plums, melons and peaches in his still lifes. This work, painted in 1761, is the only one that focuses on strawberries.

“Basket of Wild Strawberries” was rediscovered a century later, then resurfaced again in 20th-century retrospectives in Paris. Artcurial’s description characterizes it as “one of the most famous and emblematic images of the French 18th century.”

“I agree that the painting is a national treasure of France,” Lee said in an interview. “But I also think he is a world treasure and could serve as an ambassador of French culture.”

Most recently, Lee saw the work in February, when it was sent from a private collection to New York’s Adam Williams Fine Art gallery on the Upper East Side. The Kimbell, which is in Fort Worth, Texas, knew it might not be able to get an export license, but museum leaders thought the painting would be worth the risk and the wait, Lee said.

“It is a world treasure and must be seen before the public,” Lee said. “It shouldn’t be hidden away in a private collection. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that a painting like this be made available to the public.”

The Kimbell Art Museum building, opened in 1972, was designed by Louis I. Kahn, widely considered “America’s greatest living architect” at the time of his death in 1974. Kahn played with natural light in the building of Fort Worth, awash with skylights, floodlights and cycloid barrel vaults.

“Imagining this painting hanging in our galleries, I don’t think anything could be more beautiful,” Lee said. “The qualities of the painting, that intimacy, serenity and timelessness, are qualities that are also seen in the architecture of Louis Kahn.”

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