The exhibition of masterpieces of European art was a popular and lucrative form of entertainment in 19th century America. An early and noteworthy example of this was the American tour of two massive paintings by French painter Claude-Marie Dubufe in 1833 – known together as “Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” depicting scenes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
King Charles X of France had commissioned the paintings from Dubufe in 1827, but with the King’s abdication in 1830 during the July Revolution, Dubufe ended up selling them in 1832 to two London art dealers, the Brette Brothers, who, together with one James Creighton, planned for the paintings to make a three year American tour.
The paintings began their tour in May 1832 in Boston. By January 1833, they were in New York City. They were displayed at the court house in Troy during the month of August 1833. In September, they were in Rochester. They arrived in Albany on September 29, 1833, where they were displayed in the rotunda of the new City Hall until November 2 of the same year.
Wherever they went, the paintings excited debate as to their propriety. The New York Evening Post insisted that “… the delicacy of the spectator will not be wounded by an uncalled for exposure of persons. Clergymen of reputation and ladies and gentlemen of the best families, both here and at Boston, have expressed their unqualified admiration of these pictures which have with no small degree of propriety been called moral paintings.” But the New York Mirror countered that they were “splendid in their licentious character” and “an offense to public morals.” Closer to home, the Troy Budget declared that the paintings elicited “one sentiment of admiration and approbation”
The paintings were huge – each was 12 ½ feet by 8 ½ feet. They were available for viewing from 8 am until 10 pm. Single admission was 25 cents, with 50 cents getting you a ‘season’ ticket. During the evening, the paintings were ‘brilliantly illuminated.’ Profits from one day’s exhibition were set aside for charitable purposes, and that day, $38.00 was turned over to the Common Council for distribution to the poor. Ads for the exhibit stayed away from controversy, instead emphasizing the ‘chaste feeling,’ ‘charm,’ and ‘poetic power’ of the paintings, which would ‘make a lasting impression on the mind of every beholder.’ During a later tour in 1849, the organizers of the exhibit offered free admission to Sunday School classes. More proof that clever marketing did not begin in the 20th century.
The paintings were considered lost until they appeared in an auction in Stockholm in 1991. In 2008, they were purchased by the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, France, where they can be seen today.
Much credit to the Fultonhistory website for all the old newspaper reports.