This spring was a good time at the Museum of Modern Art. With the combined forces of Atget’s photographs of Paris at the turn of the century, Rousseau’s landscapes, portraits, and fantasies, and fifty years of Matisse drawings, MOMA had on hand a blockbuster-sized celebration of Paris, the classical center of modern art. These shows were hung by a curatorial staff that hasn’t given in to the idea of the museum as a rat maze; the installations were human-scale, free-flowing. And visitors were feeling a special euphoria—at the Matisse show they were smiling, almost cooing—because they didn’t have to fight against the kind of prepackaged reactions enforced by MOMA’s Primitivism show and the Van Gogh and Manet retrospectives at the Metropolitan last year.

Rousseau and Atget were pursuing their...


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