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Casanova at the Kimbell: A perhaps somewhat unexpected guide to the world of 18th century Europe

🕐 5 min read

If you lust after fine art, the Kimbell Art Museum has some paintings and artifacts for you to, um, study. Casanova: The Seduction of Europe opened Sunday, Aug. 27 at noon in the Louis I. Kahn Building, South Gallery. It runs through Dec. 31.

The exhibit includes about 200 works of art – paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, furniture, metal works, porcelain, costumes and musical instruments.

“It’s a way of looking at the 18th century through a very recognizable figure, so the show is both about the life of [Giacomo] Casanova and also his times,” said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell.

It is a difficult century to present in a museum because there are few figures recognizable to the general public. “You don’t have a van Gogh of the 18th century, or a Monet of the 18th century,” Lee said.

But Casanova? Everybody knows Casanova. Under that listing in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, you’ll find this definition: lover; especially: a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.

“He was, of course, a Casanova, but he was also so much more. He was a fugitive, an entrepreneur, a preacher, a librarian and philosopher. He was all over Europe.” Lee said. “And he knew everyone from the Louis XV to Catherine the Great, Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin.”

The exhibit at the Kimbell takes full advantage of the flexibility of the Kahn building, incorporating tableaus of 18th century life with period furniture and other furnishings, in addition to the paintings. It gives a glimpse of the life Casanova lived.

“He’s a perfect guide to the 18th century, which is such a fascinating period with so many echoes of the 21st century world as well.” Lee said.

Casanova, 1725-1798, didn’t really seduce all of Europe, only selected parts of it, and he wrote it all down – most of it anyway – in his autobiography, History of My Life, considered an unrivaled chronicle of European manners and customs for the period.

There’s a special, adults only part of the exhibit, featuring 12 illustrations by the French artist Claude-Louis Desrais of the kinds of human interaction for which Casanova is known. The art is small, but the Kimbell has thoughtfully provided magnifying glasses.

The exhibit is a collaboration of the Kimbell Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Lee says it features art and artifacts from those museums and other museums and collections from, literally, all over the world.

Among the things to see:

– A silk, velvet and embroidered man’s French court suit with gilt silver wire, sequins and bits of glass dating between 1785–92, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

– Two paintings by English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764), Before and After, from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. (You can determine before and after what.)

– Muse of Comedy, (1739), an oil by the French painter Jean-Marc Nattier (French, 1685–1766), from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

– Four paintings by Francois Boucher (French, 1703–1770) from the Kimbell’s collection: Boreas Abducting Oreithyia, (1769); Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds, (1769); Mercury Confiding the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs of Nysa, {1769); and Venus at Vulcan’s Forge, (1769). Two other Boucher paintings on loan are also featured. (Boucher does flesh tones nicely.)

– The Charlatan (1756), by Italian painter Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), from Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

– A silver French sauceboat and stand (1756–59) marked by François Thomas Germain, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The idea for the exhibit began with C.D. Dickerson, now curator and head of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., while Dickerson was curator at the Kimbell. George Shackelford, the deputy director of the Kimbell, picked up the process after Dickerson left.

Before coming to Fort Worth, Shackelford was chair of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Kimbell has done four exhibitions with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in recent years. This exhibit brings all three museums together.

Lee’s favorite painting the exhibit is displayed just as you enter the exhibition. It’s a Canaletto (Italian painter Giovanni Antonio Canal. 1697– 1768), of the port of Venice painted in 1738. It is of a scene that Casanova would have viewed in his travels. The detail is intricate in the lines and masts of the ships.

“The thing is, it’s just miraculous that he was able to do that detail and with all of these lines without making a mess of it,” Lee said. “Any less of an artist, that would have been a jumbled mess.”

The accompanying hardcover book notes that the refinement and subtlety of the period’s art is sometimes lost on 21st century viewers. “They are able to appreciate the sinuous lines that are the essence of the Rococo style, but when they encounter works of art isolated in museum displays or academic studies, many find it easy to dismiss them as merely decorative or even frivolous,” the book’s preface said. “The spirit of the Rococo can be understood best as part of a total visual environment that included architecture, interior design, painting, sculpture, and decorative arts.”

And that’s the point of this exhibit.

Following its display in Fort Worth, the exhibition will be on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Casanova: The Seduction of Europe

Kimbell Art Museum

3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.

Fort Worth 76107

Louis I. Kahn Building, South Gallery

Aug. 27–Dec. 31, 2017

Museum Hours:

Tuesdays–Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Fridays, noon–8 p.m.; Sundays, noon–5 p.m. Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Free to members, ticket prices range from $12 for students 6-11 (under 6 free) to $16 for adults. Tickets are half-price all day Tuesday and from 5-8 p.m. Friday evening. Admission includes the Acoustiguide Audio Tour.

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe (hardcover: $45) will be available in the Museum Shop. Catalogue orders may be placed online at or by calling (817) 332-8451, ext. 244.

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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