Quiet, please!

Posted on Apr 25, 2017 in News

Joseph Ducreux’s painting “Le Discret,” one of the Spencer Museum’s iconic and most-popular paintings, will headline an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, beginning in May. This article was originally published in issue no. 2, 2017, of Kansas Alumni magazine.

Joseph Ducreux's painting "Le Discret," circa 1791, on display at the Spencer Museum of ArtIs he shushing noisy children, warning of dire political dangers, or something else? Even the title of Joseph Ducreaux’s “Le Discret” hints at ambiguity. Silence? Discretion? Shades of both?

Such range of content within an otherwise uncomplicated image helped establish “Le Discret,” which has been on near-continuous display at KU since it s951 acquisition, as an icon of the Spencer Museum of Art’s collection. Now it will take its charms to a larger audience as the headliner of “America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting,” an exhibition from May 21 to Aug. 20 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“This work has a lot of personality,” says Susan Earle, the Spencer’s curator of European and American art. “It’s a great way to represent us, to share that Kansas is a place with a lot of interesting culture that people may not be aware of. That might just be a revelation to some people.”

As First Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, Ducreux feared for his life during the French Revolution and fled for a time to London. Forced afterward to reinvent himself, Ducreux ventured beyond the norms of high-society portraiture by painting self-portraits that depicted expressions then rare in fine art: yawning, laughing, crying, mocking, shushing.

Earle describes the 1791 painting as a sort of 18th-century selfie, which helps explain Ducreux’s emergence as an internet superstar. The painter, who died in 1802, has two Twitter accounts and in 2013 won Reddit’s Tournament of Memes. “It hits that chord as a selfie in a way that others don’t,” Earle says. “This one somehow speaks to people.”

A long as they don’t speak back. Shush!

—Chris Lazzarino

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