Dozens of French women—or at least paintings of them—are converging on New Orleans this spring, thanks to an exhibit mounted by the French government to help the city rebound after Katrina.
Cherchez la femme! is a charming old French expression that will take on new meaning this spring with the opening of “Femme, femme, femme: Paintings of Women in French Society from Daumier to Picasso from the Museums of France” at the New Orleans Museum of Art. This sweeping exhibition is the result of a grand gesture by the French government and more than 40 French museums that banded together to help les cousins louisianais in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
On August 29, 2005, Katrina slammed into southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving more than 1,800 people dead and 80 percent of New Orleans under four or more feet of water. When the levees broke, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), situated about eight feet above sea level, was surrounded by floodwater, much like Mont-Saint-Michel at high tide. One staff member drowned, others were evacuated to cities throughout the nation, and the museum sustained some $6 million in damages.
In the weeks following the almost complete destruction of New Orleans, French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte and Louvre president Henri Loyrette led a delegation of French officials, museum directors and curators to the city. Surveying the devastation, they immediately pledged to organize a major art show at NOMA to help this former French colonial city recover culturally and economically.
The French government and various cultural and preservation societies in France later broadened their support to include millions of dollars in relief aid to the city and the region. They set up grants and exchange programs for local musicians and artists, and championed causes ranging from the revival of French programs in New Orleans schools to the restoration of a Creole cottage and the Degas house (Edgar Degas’s mother was a native New Orleanian). They also promised to mount an exhibition of major historical documents from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France that pertain to Louisiana’s colorful French colonial history. That show, which also opens this spring, will be held at the Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, the site of the original colonial city (see sidebar, page 58).
France’s most spectacular contribution, however, is “Femme, femme, femme,” which will feature 85 paintings from Parisian and provincial museums, including masterpieces from the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. Organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the show will open March 4 and run through June 2, 2007. NOMA will be its only venue.