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From the back room of museums

Art historians can be a tenacious lot, especially when it comes to uncovering information about an artist of a previous period about whom little or nothing is known, -- or at finding long-forgotten works by such a master.

All too frequently, however, such dedicated research results in little more than a thesis, a book, or an exhibition -- after which the resurrected artist and his paintings are once again consigned to the oblivion they justly deserved.

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But there are exceptions among these re-discovered artists: painters of genuine talent who are not meely professional drudges or hangers-on worth, at most, a short art-history footnote.

Such an artist of talent was Antoine Vollon (1833-1900); a selection of whose paintings is on display at the David Findlay Gallery here.

We have art historian Carol Forman Tabler to thank for this first solo American exhibition of Vollon's art. Her interest in his work sparked this show.

The great advantage of still life painting is that it gives the artist the perfect opportunity to show off his technical and compositional skills. In the case of Vollon, this meant selecting objects whose rich and densely textured or hard metallic surfaces gave his talent for brilliant color and flamboyant brushwork full play.

In many ways, Vollon was a talent looking for a subject. He loved to paint and was, in his own words, "mad about painting." But paint required a subject or an object (at least then) with which to engage itself before it could become art.

And so we find him painting still lifes in which vases, glassware, fruit, fish, flowers, pearls, etc., became the excuse for exuberant color accents against somber backgrounds, slashes of white against deep blues, thick impasto paint spread onto canvas at the same consistency as the cheese it shapes and defines, and glowing orange paint spread out to make a huge, fat pumpkin.

In "Nature Morte," for instance, two pearl earrings were placed on a gold tray for no other purpose than to create a light-accent, and to balance off a partially peeled orange also on the try. This orange, on the other hand, was chosen because its color contrasted stunningly with a deep blue vase and a dullish gold ewer. And these, in turn, were given even more dramatic emphasis by a few white flowers dashed off in the upper left corner.

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In some ways it's a tiny and contained fireworks display, one which causes us to wonder what Vollon might have accomplished had he lived in our freer and more "modern" age.

I suspect he would have done well, for he was, despite his official honors and positions, very open to whatever was new and vital in the art of his time.

I found his small landscape paintings the most rewarding of any of his works on view. They are totally fresh and clear ahd have nothing whatever in them of French 19th-century salon art. If anything, they belong to the outdoor world of Bonington, Corot, Boudin, Daubigny, and Theodore Rousseau, the world of sharp observation, exquisite sensibilities, and sparkling pictorial effects.

The tiniest of these landscapes are absolute gems, and a slightly larger one, "Vue de Rouen," would have made Corot proud to claim it. These small works -- there are about eight or nine of them in the show -- alone make Vollon's professional resurrection more than worthwhile.

I would like to see a few more of his studies of the human figure. The two included in this exhibition don't, I'm afraid, quite measure up to his other works.

I would also like to see some of his drawings and prints, as well as a few of his watercolors. But that can wait. I'm certain there will be other, larger exhibitions of his work.

Vollon began his career in Lyons, France, in 1858 with paintings that already revealed what was to become his life-long interest in the art of the 17th and 18 th centuries. After moving to Paris in 1859 and with his first acceptance of a painting for exhibition by the official Salon in 1864, success became more tangible. He won increasingly high awards in the Salon (culminating in a first-class medal in 1869), election in 1870 to the Salon jury, commissions from the state, and, in his last year, the grand prize at the Exposition Universelle.

Fame came to Vollon primarily through his still life paintings, although he freely tackled a wide variety of other subjects. He was particularly highly regarded for his ability to capture the feel and substance of such ordinary things as clay pots, silverware, fruit, cheese, glass, -- anything and everything that went into a still life painting. In fact, his skills were so extraordinary that before long he was being favorably compared to the great 18 th-century French painter of still lifes, Jean Baptiste Chardin. ums. I hope the current revival of his work will continue, for we would all lose were he once again to fade into obscurity.

This exhibition at the David Findlay Gallery will continue through Dec. 13.

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