Impressionism – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 05 Feb 2019 18:04:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Impressionism – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Water’s Edge Tue, 28 Feb 2017 20:59:12 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of watercolors captures a moment in American painting.

Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905

Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905, watercolor and graphite on paper, sheet: 14 x 22 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Louis Comfort Tiffany, Algerian Shops Winslow Homer, Diamond Shoal, 1905 Edward Hopper, Haskell’s House Charles Demuth, Still Life: Apples and Green Glass, Jane Peterson, The Pier, Edgartown

The opportunity to view fine watercolors is perhaps more rare than one might realize. Watercolor paintings are exceptionally light-sensitive and delicate, and thus the best examples in museum collections are shown in moderation. Their fragility, coupled with a long-held stigma that they were a lesser form of painting, makes it that watercolors too seldom have their moments in the sun. An ambitious exhibition, which opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this month (March 1), brings 170 exceptional examples of American watercolor from esteemed public and private collections momentarily out of the shadows. With the show running barely three months (it closes May 14), fans of the American painting tradition are advised not to blink and miss it.

Titled “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” the exhibition looks at the medium’s boom in popularity during the last few decades of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th. During this period, quite a few hobbies of the leisure class began their ascent to their eventual status as legitimate art forms (think photography). A popular pastime and commercial style before the Civil War, watercolor inhabited a seat at the art world’s kids’ table for much of the 19th century. It was even dismissed as a so-called “ladies’” medium. However, the inception of the American Watercolor Society in 1866 and the use of the medium by leading figures of the late 19th century—such as Thomas Moran, William T. Richards, and Thomas Eakins—established watercolor as an important format for depicting the American scene. By the mid-20th century, such quintessential American artists as Edward Hopper, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, and Charles Demuth had utilized watercolor for a major part of their output.

The exhibition uses the concurrent careers of Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) as its timeline. Though they are both lauded for their work in other mediums, Homer and Sargent are arguably the most celebrated American watercolorists. Their lifetimes mirror the rise of watercolor’s popularity.

Homer learned watercolor painting technique from his mother Henrietta Benson Homer. Henrietta, an accomplished amateur watercolor painter, will be represented with work in the PMA’s exhibition. Homer, initially a successful commercial illustrator and later an eminent studio painter working in oil, began regularly incorporating watercolor into his practice after a summer trip to Gloucester, Mass., in 1873. Though initially met with critical derision (in response to a show in 1881 one critic wrote, “a child with an ink bottle could not have done worse”), Homer’s watercolors garnered popularity and sold steadily. The painter began to use watercolor as a primary medium, particularly while traveling. While spending two years (1881–82) in villages along the English coast, Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor. This output was received favorably when the painter returned to New York. In the winter of 1884–85, during his first visit to the Bahamas, Homer painted some 30 watercolors, including A Garden in Nassau (1885), a highlight of the PAM’s show. The painting depicts a local boy on a sandy path looking toward an unseen house. The dwelling is blocked by a limestone wall so white one can almost feel it sizzling with midday heat. Large palm fronds are neatly detailed, while other examples of island fauna are expressed in fluid washes of color that dot the sandy path like puddles collecting rain. Homer, who is well known for his marine paintings, has several watercolor examples in the exhibition. Diamond Shoal, a 1905 watercolor on paper, shows two sailors manning a sailboat in choppy seas, while a boat not far in the distance appears to sink. Here Homer uses watercolor as an effective device for depicting the elements—the gray, foggy sky seems thick with moisture, while the hostile waves teem with rabid white froth. Building a Smudge (1891), an earlier watercolor, is a more placid scene. The painting, which is one of some 85 watercolors Homer made in the Adirondacks between 1889 and 1895, shows to guides building a fire on an embankment near water’s edge.

Like Homer, Sargent made many of his watercolors while traveling. The portrait painter, completed some 2,000 watercolors over the course of his career, in places like Florida and Corfu, the Middle East and Maine. Often taking on a playful or joyous quality, Sargent’s watercolors depicted nature scenes, architecture, native peoples, and friends. Of Sargent’s watercolors, his biographer Sir Evan Charteris wrote in 1927, “To live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held.” Muddy Alligators, a 1917 watercolor in the PMA’s show, proves Charteris’ point. Sargent paints a scene of six alligators lounging in a swamp. The swamp water, which luminously reflects trees that grow above, and the alligators are both washed in the milky brown color of hot mud baking in the sun. Sargent, who often painted watercolors for personal amusement, completed this one as a diversion from another muddy task: painting a portrait of John D. Rockefeller at his winter house in Ormond Beach, Fla. Spanish Fountain, a watercolor from 1912, captures the yellow light of late afternoon hitting an ornate fountain. Of particular note are the tadpole-like strokes Sargent uses to suggest light reflecting off the water in fountain’s pool.

The exhibition also has several tricks up its sleeve. One is a watercolor by Louis Comfort Tiffany—Algerian Shops (circa 1872–87). The designer’s foray into watercolor is a highly detailed street scene of a marketplace in old Algiers. Perhaps it’s a reach, but the way Tiffany depicts blocks of architectural elements on buildings, wares hanging from storefronts, and figures walking through the market seems reminiscent of the abstracted blocks of color on Tiffany lamps of the era. On the topic of glass, another piece in the show is John La Farge’s Peonies in a Breeze (1890), a watercolor which the artist would render in stained glass some nine years later. The stained-glass piece, Peonies in the Wind, which was reworked in 1908, is also on view. A plate made by Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati in 1880 further illustrates versatility and popularity of watercolor at the time. The white glazed stoneware plate is decorated with fish and insects in an inky blue.

Present also in the exhibition are examples of the new generation of painters who made watercolors their own. John Marin’s The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge (1922) is a view of the city and the Brooklyn Bridge’s architecture as seen from inside the bridge. It is watercolor at its most kinetic and most modernist. In Charles Demuth’s Still Life: Apples and Green Glass (1925), there are small bleeding passages in the red paint of the apples. These splotches of bled paint dance like light on the apple’s waxy skin. Haskell’s House, a 1924 watercolor by Edward Hopper, shows a large, white Victorian house on a hill from street view. Perhaps more than any other work in the show, Haskell’s House captures a view of America that has long since begun to fade.

By Sarah E. Fensom

The Painter of Modern Life Wed, 28 Sep 2016 21:05:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Aristocratic and conservative in his tastes and opinions, Edgar Degas was a revolutionary in art.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub, circa 1883 Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, circa 1873 Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opera, Rue Le Peletier, 1872 Edgar Degas, Racehorses in a Landscape, 1894 Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

“A work of art,” Émile Zola wrote after seeing the Salon of 1866, “is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” In Zola’s novels, biology is destiny. The human temperament is fixed, like that of a piano, but democratic, commercial society is fluid. The 20-novel history of the Rougon-Macquarts, a French family under the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, demonstrates the resulting disorder, “the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.”

“Make expressive heads (Academic style) into a study of modern sentiment,” Edgar Degas wrote in a notebook in the late 1860s. A new world required a new vision. Degas’ contribution to the Salon of 1866, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, is often seen as prefiguring a shift of temperament, a turn from historical to contemporary subjects in the 1870s. “Degas: A New Vision,” which opens on October 6 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (through January 8), suggests that while Degas’ eye turned from Spartan athletes to Parisian dancers, his temperament remained fixed. As in Zola’s fiction, the world changed around him.

Curated by Gary Tinterow of the MFAH and the Degas scholar Henri Loyette, “A New Vision” is most international exhibition since “Degas,” the landmark 1988 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, whose curators also included Tinterow and Loyette. The exhibition collects more than 200 works from public and private collections and surveys the sweep of Degas’s career, from his Italian studies of the 1850s to his photographic experiments of the 1890s.

“Once I get hold of a line,” Degas told Walter Sickert, “I never let go of it.” And the line, like the idée fixe of a Balzac character, never relinquished Degas. His fleeting poses and transitional movements are both technical descriptions and psychological portraits. The two are not the same, and their blending in Degas’s expert line produces the intimate and disquieting effects that run through his work. The draughtsman resolves a challenge to his eye by capturing the physical tension of muscle and nerves. In doing so, he depicts unresolved and uncertain psychological states, notably his own.

This effect is most explicit in the early group portraits. Degas has a Tolstoyan eye for the varieties of unhappy family. In his dual portrait of his brother-in-law and sister, Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli (1865), Thérèse is half obscured by a table, while Edmondo dominates the foreground, so much so that his left elbow is off the canvas. Candidly anxious, Thérèse raises one hand to her cheek and keeps the other on Edmondo’s right shoulder, as if trying to calm herself. Edmondo sits sideways on a dining chair, his left shoulder cocked on the back of the chair, his left hand dangling loosely. He looks relaxed, but he cannot meet our gaze.

Thérèse looks directly at us with honest weakness, but Edmondo looks shiftily to his left. Like his left elbow, his eyes are pushing out of the picture, and away from Thérèse. By propping his left shoulder on the chair back, he drops his right shoulder. Thérèse’s hand will only remain there if she maintains the pressure, and if Edmondo continues his leftward drift, he will pull away from her entirely. His left leg might even be tensing in preparation for standing up and escaping a situation in which he is not as comfortable as he pretends.

“To find a method of composition that reflects our times,” Degas wrote in 1859. In that year, he began preparatory sketches for another masterpiece of misery. The Bellelli Family (1867) is a group portrait of his Italian in-laws, a bourgeois drama executed on the scale of a history painting. Laure, his father’s favorite sister, is stoically sad in black. Her pose echoes Holbein and Van Dyck, but she is a modern neurotic whose marriage has been displaced by the “fatal convulsions” of modern politics. Her husband, Gennaro Bellelli, is exiled from Naples for his activism in the Risorgimento.

Gennaro sits with his back to us, unemployed and unreliable. His face is seen in profile, as if he were a Roman preparing for his image to be stamped on the coinage, or a successful modern politician posing for an engraving. The gravity of failure, marital and public, pulls their daughters, Giovanna and Giulia, in different directions. Laure has a hand on Giovanna’s shoulder. Steadied before the gaze of the world, Giovanna is the only figure to look at the viewer. Giulia sits in the center of the picture. She is looking past Gennaro, but he is looking at her. She is his only point of contact with his family. She sits with one leg tucked under her body, ready to topple toward him, and out of Laure’s grasp. Although Laure and her daughters avoid Gennaro’s gaze, someone is watching him, and not just the artist. On the wall behind Laure’s shoulder, Degas reprises his oil portrait of his recently deceased grandfather Hilaire De Gas as an “Old Master drawing” in sanguine chalk.

In 1855, the young Degas had approached his hero, Ingres, through a family friend, and asked for advice. “Draw lines, lots of lines,” Ingres said, “from nature or from memory.” The Bellelli Family took eight years, long enough for Degas to convert his impressions of the Bellellis into muscle memory, and to reconcile modern sentiments with the “expressive heads” of the Renaissance masters. The line is beautiful, the implications bitter. Gennaro’s ironic profile and the mock Old Master drawing of Hilaire De Gas are satires on modern life.

The “Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire wrote in 1863, must “extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.” In Interior (1868–69), Degas applied the method of the history painter to the sordid matter of a Zola novel. In a dark bedroom somewhere on the border between the distressed middle class and the respectable working class, a man in bourgeois costume leans against the bedroom door, and a woman in a nightdress crouches half in shadow. On the table, her pink-lined jewelry box is open, its contents probed harshly by the light overhead.

Degas called Interior “my genre painting.” But this scene does not contain enough clues to tell a genre painting’s story. In the early 20th century, the painting was referred to as The Rape, but Degas’ friend Paul Poujaud knew it as The Quarrel. Are we looking at a classical antecedent, the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin, which sparked the revolt that turned Rome from a monarchy to a republic? Or a modern consummation, perhaps from Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, where Thérèse and her lover, having murdered her husband, prepare for their wedding night? Or a mundane scene of prostitution, raised to the level of allegory by the violence and tension of Degas’ execution?

In the early 1870s, modern life assaulted Degas as if he were the protagonist in one of Zola’s instructive catastrophes. In 1870, France accepted Prussia’s invitation to war and lost. The Second Empire fell, the emperor absconded to London, and Paris rose in revolt. The liberal Third Republic arose to make peace with Prussia and make war on the citizens of Paris.

Degas volunteered for the National Guard in 1870. During rifle training, he discovered that his eyesight was defective. So too, it emerged after his father’s death in 1873, was his vision of his family. His father, Auguste, had been a banker; his mother Célestine’s family was in the cotton business in Louisiana. Family money had cushioned Degas for 40 years. Now, it emerged that his brother René had sunk the family in debt. Degas had to sell his house and art collection to clear René’s debts and the family name. Cornered, he had to earn a living for the first time. The pictures of ballet dancers and racehorses sold especially well.

“After a great many essays and experiments and trial shots in all directions, he has fallen in love with modern life,” Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1874, after a visit to Degas’ studio. But Degas’ eye had always been on modern life, even when his mind was on ancient Greece. The posture of the boy on all fours in Young Spartan Girls Challenging Spartan Boys (1860–62, reworked 1880) recurs in his brothel sketches. He had exhibited his first picture of a dancer, Mlle. Fiocre in the “Ballet La Source” at the Salon of 1868. Degas was not in love with modern life as much as he was a prisoner of it. He preferred the city to the country, the line of a dancer’s leg to that of a tree.

Degas exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1888, but he described himself as an Independent or a Realist. He rejected plein air painting in favor of traditional studio practice. He insisted, and not without reason, that no art was “less spontaneous” than his. Aristocratic in manner, reactionary in politics, and classical in taste, he was uncomfortable with the Impressionists’ courting of controversy and publicity. In 1880, Zola even accused him of having exploited the Impressionists, in order to place his “refined and elaborate works” before a public that might otherwise have missed them.

Degas followed his lonely line into and out of the Impressionist controversy. His commonality with the Impressionists is not just in his eye for the evanescent and the quasi-photographic fixing of mobile effects. His technical commonality with the Impressionists is strongest in his use of pastels. Pastels cannot be mixed on a palette, but must be applied alla prima, directly onto the picture ground. To avoid overmixing, which kills the colors, pastels must be applied in correct sequences—blue over red, not red over blue—or by spaced strokes that mix in the viewer’s eye.

“Make portraits of people in familiar and typical positions,” ran another of Degas’ notebook jottings, “above all, give faces the same character of expression one gives their bodies.” Familiar, that is, to the muscles that sustain the pose, and typical of the person who makes the movement. In A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), his uncle, the cotton merchant Michel Musson, assesses raw cotton that is as light as a cloud but heavy with potential cash value. The perfectly balanced dancer bows with a bouquet in Finishing the Arabesque (1877); in the dressing room, the ungainly nudes hop from bath to floor.

By the 1890s, Degas was more than half blind and experimenting with a metal contraption that covered his blind right eye entirely and allowed his weakening left eye to see through a narrow slit. He called his late paintings “an orgy of color,” a final visit to his brothel of the senses. For his last drawings, he measured his model with a pair of compasses, not realizing that he was pricking her skin. After he moved to a smaller apartment, a developer knocked down his house. Drawn by memory, Degas continued to visit the site, looking at a hole in the ground, but seeing the “lines, lots of lines” of architecture, and the life that had been within.

Degas was always a man of temperamental obsessions—engraving, poetry, anti-Semitism. Like Zola, he took up photography in late life. Degas’ photographs are taken head-on, not from the corners, and they have the narrative clarity of history painting. In an 1895 photograph, the artist poses next to Albert Bartholomé’s oil, Weeping Girl. In the shadowed room, his little corner of creation, he strokes his beard and contemplates the girl’s curled, naked body. It is as though she has emanated from his head like an ectoplasm at a séance—or as if he has never left the room of Interior.

By Dominic Green

Oskar Kokoschka Painting Sells for $425,000 Tue, 28 Jun 2016 17:17:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> At Bonhams’ Impressionist & Modern Art Auction in New York on May 12, Seated Old Man set a record for a work on paper by the artist when it sold for $425,000, over four times its high estimate.

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Oskar Kokoschka is considered one of the emblematic figures of the Expressionist movement in Central European art, although he hated to be called an Expressionist. This highly expressive portrait dates from the earliest part of Kokoschka’s long career, which spanned the “Vienna 1900” era through the post-Pop ’70s (he died in 1980 at the age of 93). Executed in graphite and watercolor on a piece of light brown paper measuring16 7/8 x 12 1/8 inches and signed “OK” in the lower right, it shows the old man, his hands, cheeks, and nose reddened by exposure to the elements, seemingly beaten down by a life of hard work but still possessed of reserves of strength and endurance. Kokoschka made this drawing in 1907, when he was 21, during a time when he was making his living by painting fans and postcards for the Wiener Werkstätte. The drawing style here somewhat resembles that of Egon Schiele, who at the time was only 17 and had not yet shown his work publicly. Kokoschka himself had not had a show yet; the next year, in 1908, he exhibited at the Vienna Kunstschau, and his works were so severely blasted by the critics that Kokoschka was expelled from art school.

But he was going places anyway. The mastery evident in Seated Old Man led to Kokoschka becoming an in-demand portraitist, and the influential architect Adolf Loos became his patron. Also in 1908, he started his career as a writer with a book of poems, The Dreaming Boys, illustrated with eight color lithographs. Soon Kokoschka, a multiple threat on the cultural scene, would also become a successful Expressionist playwright.

Oskar Kokoschka, Sitzender bärtiger Mann (Seated Old Man), 1907

Offered at: Bonhams, New York, May 12, 2016
Estimated at: $70,000-100,000
Sold for: $425,000

Making Waves Tue, 28 Jun 2016 16:48:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Marine painting enshrines the love of ships and the sea, and in the best examples one can almost feel the salt spray and hear the snap of the sails.

James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853

James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) James E. Buttersworth, Clipper Ship Black Warrior, circa 1853 Mary Blood Mellen, Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore, circa 1858 William Trost Richards, Sunrise, New Jersey Shore, 1881 Guy C. Wiggins, Morning, Gloucester 1915 Irving Ramsey Wiles, White Sloop, Peconic Bay, 1907

The field of marine painting, in theory, is as vast as the ocean itself. Ships and the sea have been favorite themes of artists since ancient times. Greek vases and Roman murals depicted boats bearing men and gods on errands historical or mythological. Renaissance painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to paint panoramic views of naval battles, such as his 1598 view of the engagement in the Gulf of Naples. Even Rembrandt, usually a landlubber, couldn’t resist painting a dramatic Storm on the Sea of Galilee (now sadly lost, a victim of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston in 1990). Romantics such as Turner or the Hudson River School painters loved the way water interacts with the sky at the horizon, the atmospheric effects of moisture, and the reflection of a setting sun in a lake or sea.

But when collectors in this country speak of “marine painting” or “maritime painting” they are most likely referring to an American tradition of art originating in the early 19th century and continuing today, in which boats—whether yachts, merchant vessels, or battleships—take center stage. While collectors of marine painting also relish the aquatic beauty of nature, they tend to be involved in the world of sailing and to have a strong interest in its history. “Marine art never goes away,” says Howard Godel, a New York dealer who has long specialized in the genre. “There are always sailors and yachtsmen who have major-league boats and want to collect these paintings. Some will actually display the art on the boats; some won’t. The demand never disappears. Certain artists may cycle in and out, but as for the genre itself, it’s a forever thing.”

One of the biggest names among classic marine artists is James E. Buttersworth (1819–94). Born in England, the son of a marine painter, Thomas Buttersworth, James emigrated to the U.S. in about 1847. He worked for the firm of Currier & Ives—a reminder that marine art in those days was not just for the elite collector but was disseminated to the population via inexpensive reproductive prints made from paintings. Buttersworth specialized in portraying clipper ships, then the fastest vessels in existence. His Clipper Ship Black Warrior (circa 1853), available from Godel, skillfully depicts this medium-sized ship, which was launched in 1853 from the shipyard of Austin & Company of Damariscotta, Me., and sailed to Australia and South America. Buttersworth chose a low vantage point to paint the Black Warrior, in order to bring the viewer alongside it in the water, so to speak, and also took care to also devote some bravura brushwork to the dark, whitecapped ocean itself as well as the pink-tinged clouds. Nature and the works of man get equal time in the best marine paintings.

As the clipper-ship era came to an end in the 1860s and ’70s and the less romantic steamship came to dominate, Buttersworth turned his attention to the graceful yachts of the leisure class. He documented many America’s Cup races in the course of his career. Collectors wanting a top Buttersworth painting will have to get in line. “Buttersworth is always in demand,” says Godel, “but finding large, important ones in great condition is getting to be like finding a rare colored diamond. They were plenty around 20 or 30 years ago; now far fewer.”

Another mainstay of the 19th-century American school of marine painters is Antonio Jacobsen (1850–1921). He emigrated from Denmark to Hoboken, N.J., right off New York Harbor, and unlike Buttersworth he embraced the new technology as a subject, to the point where he was called “the Audubon of Steam Vessels.” Unlike Buttersworth, he was willing to take a volume approach; he is said to have completed some 6,000 paintings. Sea captains were his preferred clients. “Jacobsen never goes away because he’s a household name and was so prolific,” says Godel. “You really want to try and get him before 1905, when the water is crisp and the skies are really well done, painted on canvas rather than on board. The early period is worth double and triple what the later ones bring.”

Another sub-genre of American painting that falls within the category of marine art is the Luminist School. A later iteration of the Hudson River School, the Luminists (not called that at the time, only by 20th-century art historians) concentrated on still, mirror-like waters, sunsets, and ships at anchor in harbors, all with the goal of conveying a deep and glowing light and a profound sense of peaceful stillness. The top Luminist is generally considered to be Fitz Henry Lane (1804–65), whose works are now extremely scarce on the market. Lane had a female student, Mary Blood Mellen, who collaborated with him (some paintings are signed with both their names) and carried on painting in his style after his death. Her Ship at Anchor on a Lee Shore (circa 1858) is very similar to a Lane painting from about four years earlier, A Rough Sea.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905) was a Philadelphian disciple of the Hudson River School who painted many seascapes. His Sunrise, New Jersey Shore (1881), for example, is a sublime celebration of the interpenetration of sea and land at the beach. Water-soaked sands glisten as an almost moon-like sun glows just above the horizon. The only ships visible are some near-microscopic white sails in the far distance. Elizabeth Stallman, principal of MME Fine Art in New York, which handled the painting, points out that paintings inspired by a sheer love of the beauty of seascapes do very well in the market, as do those made in the service of various maritime pursuits. “We have found the market for our American marine paintings to be sound,” says Stallman, “and one of our biggest sales last year was a gorgeous William Trost Richards seascape. Thankfully, our love of the sea is a universally shared affection, and when depicted with wonderful skill, the results delight every level of astute collectors as well as public institutions.”

Paintings from the early to mid-20th century, executed in a more Impressionistic style, are also popular. Irving Ramsey Wiles’ White Sloop, Peconic Bay (1907), for example, shows off the artist’s brushy style, which has often been compared to that of John Singer Sargent. Another East Coast Impressionist who painted many marine subjects is Guy Wiggins, a student of William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. In his Morning, Gloucester (1915), the dappled reflections off the water steal the scene, and the overall effect resembles that of Childe Hassam. Some prefer the looser painting of the American Impressionists, but in general the current marine market seems to favor the crisper style and more descriptive approach of the 19th-century masters.

Another reason these painting are so cherished, according to Godel, is that they are now irreplaceable records of times past. “It’s really good that we have artists like Buttersworth and Jacobsen,” he says, “who painted enough works that we have recordings of so many American ships. Many were burned or wrecked, but there’s an image of almost every one. So these paintings are not only beautiful, they’re documents of American history.”

By John Dorfman

Points of Correspondence Thu, 28 Aug 2014 18:15:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection examines the relationship between the Neo-Impressionists and their Symbolist peers.

aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas.

aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) aul Signac, Place des Lices, St. Tropez, 1893, oil on canvas. Paul Signac, Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau, 1891, oil on canvas. Henri-Edmond Cross, Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul), 1891-92, oil on canvas. Camille Pissarro, Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground, 1891, oil on canvas;

Ogden Rood was an American physicist whose seminal book on color theory, Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry, was published in 1879. It appeared in German and French translations in 1880 and 1881. Dots—the worker-bee shape of Pointillism—were Rood’s idea. He theorized that if a painter rendered dots or lines of complementary colors closely together, the viewer, standing at a distance from the canvas, would perceive a different color. Rood devised a color wheel illustrating his theories. He believed that manipulating colors could manipulate perception and wrote, “Paintings, made up almost entirely of tints that by themselves seem modest and far from brilliant, often strike us as being rich and gorgeous in color, while, on the other hand, the most gaudy colors can easily be arranged so as to produce a depressing effect on the beholder.”

As Rood was publishing his theories, Michel Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist and thinker, was nearing the last decade of his life (he died in 1889 at the age of 102). Chevreul’s studies ran the gamut—he pioneered a formulation for soap using fats and salt; discovered margaric acid and creatine; explained the physical phenomena behind divining rods and magic pendulums. As director of the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris he became aware that certain colored dyes looked different when next to others. Beginning in 1839, he started developing a 72-part color wheel that depicted three primary colors, red, blue and yellow; three secondary mixtures of orange, green and violet; and six further secondary color mixtures. The wheel showed that under certain circumstances the brain could perceive colors that aren’t there. Chevreul’s work led him to formulate the Law of Simultaneous Contrast, which eventually crossed over from the realm of pure science into that of art history.

The scientific works of Chevreul, Rood, and others inspired Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, and their fellow Neo-Impressionists to develop a particular style of color application known as mélange optique (optical mixture). While using the study of optics as the basis for their techniques, they could approach the thematic concerns of Impressionism from a new angle. Separating colors with individual strokes of pigment—a method Signac called Divisionism—the Neo-Impressionists attempted to trick the eye into perceiving a greater vibrancy of color emanating from the canvas. As Signac put it, “the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.” Divisionism doesn’t exactly replicate the way the eye and brain divide colors, so the intended illusion doesn’t quite come through. However it represents an important step in the evolution of color theory and modern art. Its pure aesthetic effect is vibrant and shimmering—like waking up from a dream within a dream.

A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (September 27–January 11), titled “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music,” will feature more than 70 works and highlight 15 artists. Viewers will be immersed in the science and beauty of the group’s paintings just by looking at them. However, they will also be given a window into the cultural atmosphere surrounding these painters. The show will place its focus on the relationship between Neo-Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers. These two groups, which were working simultaneously, shared a social milieu as well as ideas.

“Neo-Impressionist painters were close friends with Symbolist writers and discussed passionately how to express their ideas in poetry and painting,” says exhibition curator Cornelia Homburg. “The painters wanted to transform reality in order to evoke a mood or an emotional experience, rather than find a way to reproduce what they saw in front of them.” Similarly, the mission of the Symbolist movement was to depict absolute truths through indirect description. Symbolist poetry was an art of evocation rather than explanation.

The Symbolist art critic Félix Fénéon coined the term Neo-Impressionism, while writing for L’Art Moderne, an arts journal affiliated with the avant-garde Belgian group Les XX (who held a yearly salon where the Neo-Impressionists often showed their work). In an article titled Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui, Fénéon described a piece of Signac’s work as an “exemplary specimen of an art of great decorative development, which sacrifices anecdote to arabesque, analysis to synthesis, the fugitive to the permanent.” Signac in turn painted Fénéon with exuberant flair. Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890) is an almost proto-psychedelic, pointillist depiction of the critic holding a flower before a background of swirling colors, patterns, and stars. Signac wanted to capture “a decorative Félix,” in an “angular and rhythmic pose.” The artist wrote, “it will be…a very composed picture, very organized as to line and color.”

Painted the following year, in 1891, Signac’s Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau, which will be hung at the Phillips, though more placid in mood, shares the portrait’s principles. The lines and colors are very organized—as can be seen in the ripples of the sea and the boats dotting the horizon—yet there is a rhythmic, almost buzzing quality to the seascape because of the pointillist technique. Though it is a scene ripped from nature, it bears a decorative quality that is willfully divorced from reality.

The painting, as suggested in its title, takes inspiration from music, as did many Neo-Impressionist works. An important aspect of the exhibition, the group’s relationship with theater, music, and performance, will be on display. Seurat’s At the Gaîté Rochechouart (Café-concert), circa 1887–88, depicts the orchestra pit, the conductor, and a female singer, arms raised in the midst of a performance. The scene is rendered in conté crayon and white gouache on buff laid paper. The textures of the media coupled with the paper mimic the effect of the pointillist technique though the scene is black and white. A mysterious haze seems to descend on the stage from a light in the top right corner, and the dark cast over the orchestra gives the illusion that it is vibrating with noise. Another 1887 work on paper by Seurat, Woman Singing in a Café Chantant, is also in the show. Seen from the side of the stage, the performer is in profile. As the lights glow, the scroll of the stand-up bass and the head of its player seem to be backlit. Using black and blue chalk, white and pink gouache, and pencil and brown ink on paper, Seurat gives the viewer the illusion of a nighttime buzz, without the hangover—all of the illusion with none of the consequences.

Coastal Impressions: A Look at the California Art Scene Thu, 27 Dec 2012 23:54:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> California paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries represent an exciting opportunity for collectors in search of beauty and quality.

Armin Hansen, Jewels of the Sea

Armin Hansen, Jewels of the Sea

Long before there was midcentury modern or Bay Area Abstraction and Figuration, California boasted a lively art scene. Its styles were firmly rooted in European Impressionism but adapted to the unique light and landscape of the state. Just as California beckoned to sun-seekers everywhere, it attracted artists looking for a plein-air paradise. “Most of them were from the East Coast, the Midwest or Europe,” notes George Stern, a longtime dealer of early California painting based in West Hollywood. “They came because of the promotion of California as a new Eden, with great opportunities and great weather—and the ability to paint outdoors almost 365 days a year.”

While Southern California painting is more popular today, Northern California painting came first, and it was not strictly speaking plein-air. In the 1890s, painters in the San Francisco area made the transition from doing large-scale, painted-to-impress views of well-known landmarks to more intimate, contemplative studies of the effects of light and atmosphere, based on close observation but often executed in the studio. This approach is known as Tonalism, and took its inspiration from the Hudson River School landscape work of George Inness and from the daring light-and-dark effects of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Among the Tonalists were William Keith and Thomas Hill, as well as Charles Rollo Peters, a San Francisco-born specialist in moonlit nocturnes who spent a great deal of his career in Monterey. Peters was a particular admirer of Whistler, and the notoriously critical expatriate master returned the feeling. Another prominent Northern California Tonalist was Arthur Mathews, who with his wife, Lucia, was also a furniture designer and a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. In fact, interest in Arts and Crafts was a major factor in the revival of interest in early California painting in the 1980s, after a long period of disfavor.

One of Mathews’ students, Granville Redmond, represents in his own person the shift of California’s artistic center of gravity in the early 20th century. Stern describes him as a “transitional figure,” in that he began with Tonalist compositions while living in the Bay Area and switched to an Impressionist style after settling in Los Angeles. “Redmond’s early works are very Tonal,” says Whitney Ganz of William A. Karges Fine Art in Beverly Hills . “He came down here and his works got brighter and brighter.” Redmond’s landscapes, rich in floral detail, are among the most sought-after California paintings in today’s market, the top price at auction for a canvas of his being $542,000.

After the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, many artists abandoned the area and moved South—especially to the Carmel–Monterey area but also to Laguna and of course Los Angeles. Once there, their art inevitably changed under the powerful influence of the strong sun and the special colors and effects it creates in combination with the local flora, desert and mountains. Among the other major figures of this period (through the 1930s, when the Depression effectively caused the demise of California Impressionism and its collector base) were William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Armin Hansen, Franz Bischoff and Guy Rose. Rose is interesting because while a native of Los Angeles, he spent a great deal of time (until 1914) living and painting in the Giverny art colony, where he befriended Monet.

Rose’s style is very close to French Impressionism, which makes him a standout among his California colleagues. “California Impressionism is not pure Impressionism, defined like French Impressionism, it but does carry on some of those traditions, like painting out of doors and capturing atmospheric conditions,” says Ganz. “In general, it has a slightly more realist look than what you would find at height of French Impressionism. Guy Rose is biggest exception—he paints most like a French Impressionist of all the early California artists.” A Rose oil on canvas, Woman Sewing in a Garden, will be offered in Bonhams’ sale of California and Western paintings in L.A. on December 11, estimated at $400,000–600,000. His auction record is nearly $2 million.

After decades of obscurity during which modernism eclipsed California plein-air and Tonalist painting, the revival of the 1980s and ’90s brought about a long-term upswing that is still going on. Of course, the recession of 2008–09 has affected the California market as it has in all art fields. Ganz says, “Although the market certainly isn’t where is was five years ago, we are selling paintings, especially top-tier works in terms of quality. But if someone wanted to acquire a few paintings or put a collection together, now would be the time to buy.” He explains that at the entry level, a beginning collector “can get nice collectible material between $10,000 and 20,000—something that would really hold up over time.” The next tier up would be in the $20,000–75,000 range, and the top is six figures to over $1 million.

Auction houses are also seeing a relatively soft market right now. “The California Impressionist market is still in recovery, but we are seeing good prices consistently now for the “A” artists,” says Katie Halligan, vice president and fine art sales director at John Moran Auctioneers, in Altadena, which holds two sales a year devoted to early California painting. “Buyers are willing to step up for Payne, Rose, and so on.” Scot Levitt, Bonhams’ director of fine arts in L.A. and San Francisco, says, “The top end of the market continues to be strong, and, as best we can tell, always will be strong. For anything else, the market is volatile, it’s up and it’s down. Sales that used to be 90 percent sold are now 75 or 80 percent, and that’s entirely due to the economy.”

Stern says, “We can still sell paintings in the six and seven figures, but there are great opportunities for beginning collectors to come into it and pay under $10,000. There are very fine quality painters you can still collect because they are not on radar of most collectors.” Among the undervalued artists he cites Clarence Hinkle, “a post-Impressionist who can occasionally get into an almost expressionist style of work,” Aaron Kilpatrick, William Judson and John Bond Francisco. Alternately, one could try collecting works in a style other than that for which an artist is most famous. Stern observes that Redmond’s moodier Tonalist paintings sell for significantly less than his more familiar verdant landscapes with poppy fields. In general, Tonalist works are lower priced, and Peters’ night scenes, says Stern, are “interesting and desirable but not so expensive.”

Whatever one buys, early California paintings will likely continue to appeal, both within and outside their home state. “I’ve had a lot of clients who collect it because they love Impressionism and obviously it’s cost-prohibitive to collect paintings by great French Impressionists—if they were even available,” says Ganz. “But it’s also it’s about the place where they grew up. The attraction is historical, topographic and aesthetic. You look at these paintings and think, wow, that’s what the area used to look like before there were any houses there!” Stern points out that California painting is “very straightforward, very appealing, and the concept of beauty is something that is very relevant to it. Those are not the primary motivating factors for people who are collecting contemporary art, but it was with these painters.”

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Coastal Impressions”

American Impressionism: Florence Exhibition Examines American and Italian Influences Wed, 02 May 2012 23:56:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In the late 19th century, American artists and their patrons descended on “the Boston of Italy,” and now the city is commemorating the event with a show at the Palazzo Strozzi.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “A Flowering in Florence”.

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 When James Bradburne, the dynamic director of Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, came to New York last fall to publicize the foundation’s upcoming exhibition “Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists,” he held his meetings at The House of the Redeemer.

“Where?” asked the seasoned New Yorkers who had appointments with him. Bradburne was referring to a 1916 Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, smack in the middle of Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, that was home to Edith Shepard Fabbri before she willed it to the Episcopal Church as a retreat house. Born a Vanderbilt, she was married to Ernesto Fabbri, brother of the artist Egisto Fabbri, who anchored Florence’s American art colony. Egisto designed the House of the Redeemer’s interiors, complete with a 15th-century library imported from a ducal palace in Urbino—a fitting backdrop for Bradburne’s recounting of the early days of the art world’s great Italian-American love story.

It all started after the Civil War, when rich Americans, particularly from Boston and the East Coast, began traveling to Europe. It was the American age of the Grand Tour, and art capitals such as Paris, London, Munich, Dusseldorf, Venice and Florence were among the must-dos for the cultivated. Edith Wharton, Bernard Berenson, Gertrude Stein, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Vernon Lee all set sail. Artists were also making the crossing, enrolling in art schools and feasting on a smorgasbord of monuments, Renaissance paintings and the increasingly impressionistic painting styles of their European contemporaries. “My God, I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven,” said William Merritt Chase.

Certain cities, such as Florence, proved difficult to leave. Henry James, who was omnipresent abroad during these years, called Florence the “little treasure-city.” East Coast intellectuals dubbed it the “Boston of Italy.” Thanks to Florence’s violet-tinged light, awesome art and architecture and poetic villas and gardens, American artists who couldn’t bear the thought of another bleak New England winter settled in, producing some of the finest American works of plein air landscape and portraiture.

“Americans in Florence” documents their progress, which would continue up to World War I. Early “pioneers” such as John La Farge, George Inness and William Morris Hunt were followed by Elihu Vedder, Frank Duveneck, Elizabeth Boott (who would marry Duveneck), Frederick Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Integral to the artist’s circle was Egisto Fabbri, the American-born Italian painter who had a palace stuffed with Cézannes in town and an overgrown romantic estate, Villa di Babazzano, in the Tuscan hills. American and Italian artists flocked to both of them. Of course, the true star of this era is John Singer Sargent, an American who was actually born in Florence.

One of the treats of this show is a collection of recently discovered photographs of this art colony that were taken by the eldest Fabbri sibling, Ernestine, who was also a painter. Shown side by side with a Sargent or an Egisto Fabbri painting, photos make the era—with its settings, costumes and customs—spring to life.

Palazzo Strozzi is noted for its creative approach to its exhibition subjects, and this show not only examines how Italy influenced Americans but how this wave of Americans affected Italian painters. They certainly took notice of those beautiful American girls wandering the city’s piazzas in their frothy white dresses—as evidenced by canvases of Giovanni Boldini, Vittorio Corcos, Telemaco Signorini, and Michele Gordigiani. The final section of the exhibition looks at how American artists who worked in Florence influenced later American painting—many of them, including Frank Weston Benson, John White Alexander, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (all represented in the exhibition) returned to the United States and taught.

Palazzo Strozzi also has a reputation for coaxing little-seen loans out of private and museum collections. Among those in this exhibition is the painting that opens the show, The Hotel Room (1904–06) by Sargent, with the idea that this may have been an American artist’s first view of Florence. “Americans in Florence” displays examples of every kind painting that was popular in this era—portraiture of the wealthy, famous and titled; city scenes starring iconic Florence bridges and squares; “interiors with figures,” usually depicting a beautiful young woman in a sitting room in a faded Florentine palazzo; gritty paintings showing the encroachment of the Industrial Age on the verdant countryside, Renaissance-revival works, and idyllic Impressionistic Tuscan landscapes—think gardens, villas and lots of picnicking.

The exhibition has also produced a companion booklet, Passport for Americans in Florence, that provides visitors’ information on many of the palazzi, villas, churches and gardens that figure in these paintings. So, after viewing Sargent’s gorgeous At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden (1910), a visitor can consult the Passport for the opening hours of the garden and chapel at the real Villa di Torregalli.

“Americans in Florence” runs through July 15. The foundation selected this year to stage the show because it’s the 500th anniversary of the death of the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake. Matteo Renzi, Florence’s progressive young mayor, has declared 2012 the year of the Americas. In honor of the decree, a sister show, “American Dreamers: Reality and Imagination in Contemporary Art,” is also up at Palazzo Strozzi’s Center for Contemporary Culture through July 15.

By Sallie Brady

Impressionism: Portland Exhibition Reveals the Private Edgar Degas Thu, 05 Apr 2012 06:14:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Edgar Degas kept a great deal to himself—not only his private life but some of his most interesting artworks.

Edgar Degas and Auguste Clot, Before the Race

Edgar Degas and Auguste Clot, Before the Race, circa 1895, color lithograph

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Illustrious and Unknown”.

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Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, 1857-58 Edgar Degas, Heads of a Man and a Woman Vicomte Lepic, Moonlit Landscape Edgar Degas and Auguste Clot, Before the Race

Edgar Degas was a man of contradictions. The scion of an aristocratic family, he maintained a patrician reserve and critical stance, yet he sympathized with ordinary people, accurately observed them and depicted them with dignity. He carefully cultivated a curmudgeonly persona but had a large circle of close friends and family for much of his life and gladly mentored younger artists. Contradictions appear in his work, too: Degas was a leader of the Impressionist movement and in some ways more modern than the Impressionists—and yet the classical Ingres was his idol and the Old Masters his constant point of reference. Degas was uncomfortable with public attention and once said, “I would like to be illustrious and unknown.”

He has largely gotten his wish. The critic John Canaday wrote, “Degas, one of the supreme artists not only of his rich century in France, but of any century anywhere, is also one of the most frustratingly elusive personalities.” Coincidentally, two current exhibitions—one at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine (through May 28) and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through May 20)—propose to take us into Degas’ private world. Though very different in scope, both shows rely on the artist’s less-known prints and drawings rather than his iconic ballet and equestrian paintings and pastels to make their point.

The Portland show, “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist,” while the larger of the two, is entirely based on one man’s collection—that of co-organizer Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in San Francisco. (The show was created in partnership with Landau Traveling Exhibitions, an L.A.-based company that organizes and packages shows that are affordable to university museums and other smaller institutions.) Johnson has a passion for Degas and sees him as a sort of kindred spirit. Put together over a period of almost 40 years on a curator’s salary, the collection comprises not only works by Degas but also by artists in his circle, such as Henri Fantin-Latour, Félix Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Stevens and James Tissot. Considering their history and provenance, it is only natural that they tend to reveal the private Degas—Johnson says, “Not one of my 21 drawings was ever sold during Degas’ lifetime.” They were done for the artist’s own purposes and chart his development and experimentation.

Many are portraits, noteworthy for the sense of intimacy they convey. A drawing in black crayon on plum-colored paper of Mademoiselle Dembowska, a young relative of Degas’ whom he drew while studying in Italy during the 1850s, is beautifully sensitive, the child’s head fully though finely modeled while the rest of the body is merely suggested. Johnson calls this the “most important” Degas drawing in his collection. “This child is neither sweet nor sad,” he says. “She’s like a child with an adult inside; there’s a knowing quality about her. The fact that Degas concentrated on the head and left the rest of the drawing with just a few faint outlines shows that he was doing it from life, just to please himself. He put it in his portfolio, and it never saw the light of day till the estate sale in 1918,” following the artist’s death the previous year. “One sees this work that is heartbreakingly beautiful and wonders if the parents of that child ever saw it before it was whisked away.” A circa 1854 self-portrait shows Degas himself rendered in Old Master style, in profile. It would have taken two mirrors for the artist to see himself from this angle, but such experimentation came naturally to Degas.

Several of the drawings emphasize Degas’ grounding in academic technique and his admiration for the past. “Before Degas built the fourth floor, he built a really strong basement,” says Johnson, “and that basement was his love of the Old Masters.” He only met Ingres once, briefly, in 1855, but long enough for the 75-year-old to tell the 21-year-old, “Draw lines, young man, many lines.” Early drawings in the Portland Museum exhibition show Degas taking that advice literally, copying classical sculpture, his pencil following the curve of a Greek or Roman statue’s legs and feet, the profile outline of a sculpted face. Degas remained grounded in line for the rest of his career; his eventual adoption of pastel was a brilliantly successful gambit to unite the virtues of painting and drawing in one medium.

Some of the prints in Johnson’s collection show Degas in a particularly experimental, even casual mode. While most are etchings and drypoint, there are two works in monotype, a very unforgiving technique—essentially drawing with a brush in ink on a printing plate—that usually produces only one image, maybe two, rather than multiples, and requires that everything be gotten right the first time. According to Johnson, Degas learned monotype from his friend Lepic and became the only artist other than William Blake to “fully explore” the medium since its invention in the 17th century. One monotype depicts a formally dressed man and woman, their faces blurred by the brush. “This print has such total spontaneity,” says Johnson. “Making a monotype is like cooking a soufflé—it either works or it doesn’t. This ill assorted couple is such a wonderful microcosm of the French bourgeoisie of the 1880s. The blur conveys motion, as if she has turned away from her husband, saying, ‘What a bore!’ Motion is a very important part of Degas’ work.” Another monotype of two trees, very lightly rendered, suggests the Japanese woodblock prints that Degas admired.

Other prints in the collection show Japanese influence, for instance a very striking portrayal of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, circa 1879–80, in etching, aquatint and drypoint. Seen from the back, Degas’ protégée arches her back gracefully, seeming to trail her umbrella behind her rather than leaning on it. The image’s vertical shape recalls the “pillar” format of Japanese prints, according to the catalogue notes, and the overlapping figures and the cropping of the picture space are also Japanese-influenced. But the print is also, as Johnson is quick to point out, photography-influenced. “There’s a sense of the figure being partially obscured by the doorway—it’s a photograph, a snapshot.”

That photography should have had an impact on Degas’ art is hardly surprising; he was living in the midst of the most exciting era of the medium’s development and he was a born experimenter. While he was no master of the technical aspect of photography, he was an avid snapshooter who liked to capture family and friends in unguarded moments—although he would sometimes aggressively, almost tyrannically, pose them to fit a composition he had imagined. The artist and critic Michael Ayrton (cited by Johnson and co-curator Louise Siddons in the catalogue) has written that Degas “was interested in snapshot photography…and found in the arbitrary pictorial boundaries imposed by the lens a convention which added greatly to the sense of the event with which his pictures are concerned. By his use of this synthetic, visual technique, he created a mode of composition almost without precedent.”

While Johnson is a collector of photography himself—especially found snapshots—he cherishes his Degas photos chiefly for what they say about the man himself. “The addition of photos to the exhibition shows a warm side of Degas,” he says. “We see him taking photos of his friend Claude Debussy on a boating party; we see him off-duty with his sword in his sheath, not the grumpy Parisian persona he worked so hard to build up.” The essential warmth of the private Degas was vividly painted in words by the Symbolist Odilon Redon, whose work Degas admired even if he couldn’t always relate to it: “The main interest in his talk is the rage he exhales against the false and the absurd. I told him how pleasantly surprised I was, in view of his reputation for being a tiger, by his communicative sociability. He said he maintained that legend of ferocity to get people to let him alone.” A pen-and-ink portrait by Redon of the fantastical printmaker Rodolphe Bresdin is in the exhibition, part of Johnson’s attempt to re-create the atmosphere of Degas’ own collection of works by his friends and other fellow artists.

For Degas was very much a collector; Johnson calls his “the best artist’s collection since Thomas Lawrence’s Old Masters.” He also likes to point out that “the greatest collector of Degas was Degas,” referring to his habit of not offering certain kinds of work for sale or exhibition. Toward the end of his life Degas was even contemplating starting his own museum, to be dedicated to his own work as well as that of the artists he prized, but he changed his mind after being appalled at the bad taste of Gustave Moreau’s private museum. In any case, Johnson feels a kinship with Degas in the matter of collecting—like the artist, he is a relatively impecunious collector who seeks out opportunities in out of the way places, is prepared to wait very patiently for what he wants, and doesn’t put too much emphasis on condition. He put together his Degas collection by buying works on paper rather than paintings or pastels, going after less popular subject matter (he jokes that at an auction he got a Degas drawing of a plough horse that no one wanted because it wasn’t a race horse), and by accepting prints from cancelled plates. The portrait of Cassatt in the Louvre has light cancellation marks going across it; a print of that image without the marks would cost vastly more. “As a scholar,” says Johnson, “am I going to give up that image in my collection just because I wasn’t able to win the Powerball lottery? I don’t make any apologies.”

In some cases, he actually values damaged works for the damage: He has an etched portrait of Degas’ sister Marguerite in which the woman’s face is almost completely obliterated because the artist fussed with the plate through six states, at the last of which he applied too much acid. “He got it to a perfect state, then did a little bit more, screwed it up a bit, then virtually ruined it,” says Johnson. “Why would I buy this? I’m a seeker of knowledge. One of reasons I love this print is that it shows how Degas could put salt in the soup till it didn’t taste good anymore. He was much more interested in the journey than in the destination.”

The beginning of that journey is highlighted at the Met by a smaller but very interesting exhibition, “Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” on view through May 20. In the 1850s, when Degas was a student, diligently copying at the Louvre (a habit he kept up well into middle age), the art world was rediscovering the etchings of Rembrandt, due mainly to the publication of an affordable, high-quality book of reproductions. Rembrandt was idolized by the young generation for his bold, anticlassical style, uncompromising realism, and technical virtuosity,” in the words of the Met’s curators.

Degas was particularly captivated by Rembrandt’s tiny, intimate etched self-portraits, done when he was in his early 20s, the same age as Degas was when he began modeling his own self-portraits on them. This face-to-face encounter shows Degas looking to the past while looking inside himself, copying but also moving ahead with his own style. The show includes paintings, drawings and prints, mainly self-portraits by both artists but also a copy by Degas from Rembrandt (his 1857 Young Man in a Velvet Cap) and a portrait of the printmaker and teacher Joseph Tourny—who introduced him to Rembrandt’s work—in the style of Rembrandt.

While Rembrandt’s self-portraits helped guarantee his fame, Degas’ have never been seen as a key aspect of his work. In part, that has been due to his own desire to keep them out of the public eye. Wishing to remain paradoxically “illustrious and unknown,” Degas gave the world a partial view of himself—say, a three-quarter view in shadow. Now, thanks to some innovative curators, we are getting a look at the
whole man.

Into The Woods Fri, 01 Apr 2011 04:01:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By Jonathan Kandell
Inside the Kröller-Müller Museum, deep in the Dutch countryside, lies one of the world’s great Van Gogh collections, and behind it lies one of the great stories of 20th-century collecting.

Deep in southeastern Holland, around the village of Otterlo, far from Amsterdam’s canals and the North Sea dikes, the countryside loses its Dutch predictability. This is the Hoge Veluwe National Park, 13,600 acres of woods, heath, grassy plains and sand drifts populated by deer, wild boars and foxes. An eerie, medieval-looking fortress, St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge, rises on the edge of a lake. And stranger still in this isolated setting is the presence of the Kröller-Müller Museum, which behind its contemporary glass-and-aluminum façade houses one of the world’s greatest Van Gogh collections.

All this property was once the domain of Holland’s wealthiest couple, the industrialist Anton Kröller (1862–1941) and his wife, Helene Kröller-Müller (1869–1939), the heiress who brought him his fortune and amassed the art collection that has immortalized them both. Despite the 42-mile trek by train and bus from Amsterdam, some 300,000 visitors descend on the museum each year to see key Impressionist and modern works—but above all, to see the Van Goghs.

The core of the Kröller-Müller Museum’s holdings is housed in the original brown-brick wing designed by Henry van de Velde and opened in 1938. In the galleries around the main patio hang the Van Goghs—in the dark teak and pale maple frames chosen by Helene—surrounded by works by Seurat, Signac, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Picasso, Gris and Mondrian, among others. The outlying galleries hold earlier 19th-century works and a selection of Old Masters dating back to the 15th century.

The 60-acre sculpture garden, one of the largest in Europe, has more than 50 works by artists including Rodin, Henry Moore and Richard Serra. For the most part, the sculptures are set far apart from each other, either on the expansive lawns or in unexpected nooks hidden by clumps of bushes and trees. What a foreign visitor finds most striking about the Kröller-Müller is coming across such a remarkable collection in the middle of a forest two hours from the far better-known and much more crowded Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. But it was the founder’s intention that visitors should contemplate her prized modernist artworks in a quiet rural setting far from the distractions of modern life. And it is fitting that one must hunt a bit to find this trove hidden in the midst of an old hunting reserve.

Although the story of how the Kröller-Müller collection was put together is one of the most interesting in 20th-century collecting, it has only recently been fully told. Helene herself was something of a mystery—a tiny, unsmiling matron staring out from old photographs—but that changed in 2005, when the family of Sam van Deventer, a friend and confidant, gave the museum 3,400 letters that Helene had written to him. The Kröller-Müller then asked a Dutch scholar, Eva Rovers (currently a researcher at the University of Groningen), to use the letters to write a biography of Helene Kröller-Müller and to curate the first exhibition dedicated to her life. That show, titled “Helene’s Men,” ran at the Kröller-Müller from November through February and focused on the collector’s relationships with the advisors and experts who guided her. The book, Eternity Collected, appeared in Dutch late last year, though it has not yet been translated into any other language. The frank letters on which it is based reveal the complex gamut of motives—selfless and egotistical, aesthetic and social—behind the building of a great private collection.

Until 1905, when she was 36 years old, Kröller-Müller lived a conventional existence that left her with a sense of personal failure. She came from an extremely conservative social background in Germany and moved to Holland after marrying Anton Kröller, a Dutch executive in her father’s prosperous iron ore and coal company. Along with his wife, Anton would eventually inherit the firm and run it from The Hague.

For Helene, Holland was no more uplifting than Germany had been. Rejected by established Dutch society as a nouveau riche foreigner, she reacted with open displays of wealth. The Kröller-Müllers moved into an opulent villa in the best neighborhood of The Hague and were among the first people there to own an automobile. Still, Kröller-Müller was unsatisfied. “I was a nanny, housekeeper and lady all in one for years,” she wrote to her friend Van Deventer in 1912. “However, beneath all that lay something stronger. Something I can trace back to my childhood, the better me, which I could not reach for many years.”

Her awakening came by chance. Her adolescent daughter returned from an art class gushing about the instructor, Henk Bremmer, with such enthusiasm that Kröller-Müller decided to attend a class. Even more smitten than her daughter, she enrolled for seven classes a week and soon asked Bremmer, a renowned critic of modern art, to help her become a collector. Helene Kröller-Müller had found her calling.

Nonetheless, social impulses played a role in her artistic conversion. “Collecting art became a way to show that she had taste, perhaps better taste than most high-society families who collected conventional works from The Hague school of painting”—a late 19th-century realist movement influenced by the Barbizon school—“and Old Dutch Masters,” says Rovers. That was one reason why Kröller-Müller was receptive to Bremmer’s suggestion that she buy works by an artist as cutting-edge as Van Gogh.

In the span of a few years preceding World War I, Kröller-Müller purchased an astonishing 91 paintings and 175 drawings by Van Gogh—in fact, only the artist’s family possessed a greater private hoard of his work. Rovers points out, “Helene started acquiring Van Gogh at a time when he was still a controversial artist who wasn’t widely collected.” Her first Van Gogh purchase, in 1908, was Edge of a Wood (1882), depicting an almost orderly row of trees set against a dimly lit sky. Van Gogh, who had died 18 years before, was still little known, and Bremmer was gently nudging Kröller-Müller toward the unappreciated artist. “This is a Dutch work that wouldn’t scare Helene away from Van Gogh, perhaps the way the brightly colored French subjects would have,” says Rovers. It was also incredibly cheap—bought at auction in The Hague for only 110 guilders, the equivalent of about $50 at the time. Only months later, Kröller-Müller would be paying 10 times that amount for a Van Gogh painting like Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887), a strong, colorful sample of the artist’s French-period paintings.

By 1912, Kröller-Müller was buying Van Goghs at a feverish pace, spending more than 115,000 guilders on a score of paintings in April alone. Her purchase of The Langlois Bridge With Washerwomen (1888) a month later for 16,000 guilders, five times the pre-auction estimate, made a very public statement. “It really helped raise the market price for Van Goghs,” says Rovers. “She could have paid less, but she wanted to show how important she thought Van Gogh was.” In a letter to Van Deventer, she described it as one of the “most beautiful, strongest, most crystal-clear” Van Goghs in her collection. (In the 1920s Kröller-Müller also bought some fake Van Goghs from the unscrupulous German art dealer Otto Wacker, whose deceptions took in many top experts, including Bremmer. Today, the museum still possesses those canvases, though it keeps them in storage.)

In promoting the artist, Bremmer emphasized his spirituality and heroic struggle against his emotional demons. These qualities appealed strongly to Kröller-Müller, who had been searching since adolescence for an alternative to conventional religion. In a 1912 letter to Van Deventer, she described the reasons for her purchase of Old Man in Sorrow (1890), a portrait that shows the subject in a chair, his head in his hands, his whole body contorted by grief. “When one paints suffering in such a way,” she wrote, “then one does not really feel it as suffering any more, one does not endure it any more but knows that it is a necessity, and the acknowledgment of that brings [repose].”

La Berceuse (1888), a portrait of a mother rocking a cradle, had a similar effect on Kröller-Müller. In a long, rather windy passage in a letter to Van Deventer, she imagines the painting hanging aboard a ship in rough seas providing motherly or wifely solace to the sailors. La Berceuse was purchased in 1912, at a time when Kröller-Müller herself needed comfort. The year before, she had been diagnosed with tumors in her uterus and had to undergo life-threatening surgery. The possibility that she would not live much longer accounts in part for her buying frenzy, which targeted not only Van Goghs but also works by Signac, Seurat, Redon, Gris, Picasso, Ensor and Mondrian.

“Before her operation,” says Rovers, “she made her husband promise that in case she didn’t survive he would support her plan to build up the most representative collection of modern art in Holland and build a museum for it as well.” The operation was successful, and the tumors turned out to be benign, which meant that the Kröller-Müllers would soon accelerate their art purchases and begin planning the museum.

The couple initially hired the famed Dutch architect H.P. Berlage to design both the museum and the St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge on their vast estate. The lodge, in neo-medieval style, sprawls in the shape of deer antlers with a tower in the shape of a cross rising from the center. It recalls the incident that converted the pagan hunter-warrior Hubertus to Christianity: While on a hunt in the forest, he came across a deer with a luminous cross between its antlers.

But the lodge was more a place for Anton and his hunting cronies than for Helene. “It is very much a work of art, but masculine, dark,” says Rovers. “Whoever lives there must adjust to the architecture.” When Helene tried to soften the harsh interior, she clashed with Berlage. The final falling out was his resistance to widening the window in her study to allow her a better view of the surrounding lake and forest. Berlage was allowed to complete the lodge—a six-year task that ended in 1920—but he did not proceed with the museum.

In any case, the project was postponed for almost two decades because the deep economic recession that swept Europe after World War I left the Kröller-Müller business empire on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1922, Kröller-Müller had virtually stopped acquiring major works of art, and she struggled for years to put together the financing for a much smaller museum than she had originally planned. Finally, with the help of government funds, the Kröller-Müller Museum opened in 1938, with Helene serving as its first director until her death a year later at the age of 70. Anton died in 1941. They are both buried at Hoge Veluwe, which they had turned over to the government as a park and nature reserve several years before.

The decision to place the museum at Hoge Veluwe, rather than in an urban setting, was not purely financial. Kröller-Müller became convinced that the former hunting ground was conducive to an understanding of modern art. “She feared that in a city environment people would be too distracted, too much in a rush,” says Rovers. “She thought that a natural surrounding would help create the peace of mind necessary to contemplate and appreciate difficult works of modern art.”

Talking Pictures: A Life in Letters Mon, 01 Feb 2010 22:04:01 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By: Jonathan Lopez

Vincent van Gogh’s letters have offered the general public an intimate view of the artist’s life and psyche since at least 1893, when the French painter Émile Bernard published a selection of items that he had received from Van Gogh in the Mercure de France. This was just three years after the troubled Dutchman’s death by suicide at the age of 37, during a period when the name Van Gogh was little known beyond a small community of avant-garde artists. As Van Gogh’s reputation grew, however, so did interest in his biography, especially when presented in his own words.

The now-famous correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo first became available in book form in 1914, albeit in a text bowdlerized by Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who downplayed issues ranging from Vincent’s mental illness to his affinity for prostitutes to his awesome, and at times deeply impractical, sense of religious vocation. It was Jo’s son, the engineer V. W. van Gogh, who supervised the first comprehensive edition of all the known letters to or from Vincent, a three-volume collection published in 1953, the centenary of the artist’s birth; an English translation appeared five years later. Although long considered definitive, this 56-year-old version of Van Gogh’s correspondence will now have to make room for something vastly superior.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, working in partnership with the Huygens Institute of the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, has issued a new annotated and illustrated edition of Van Gogh’s letters, available in Dutch, French and English, each version running to six volumes. The culmination of 15 years’ intensive scholarship, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters constitutes nothing less than the most thoroughly documented primary-source biography ever published on any artist. The intelligence, depth of knowledge and scrupulous attention to detail that editors Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten have brought to their task make this a work that every literate person should own—or, in light of the $600 price tag, at least aspire to own.

“You have a more complete Van Gogh now,” says Luijten, speaking in his office across from the museum. “We wanted to give Van Gogh back his letters as he really wrote them.”

This edition’s new, triple-vetted transcriptions of the original documents reveal numerous errors in the older published versions, ranging from the comical—words rendered as a series of numerals due to Van Gogh’s sometimes cryptic handwriting—to the art-historically significant. For instance, writing to Bernard from the asylum at Saint-Rémy in 1889, Van Gogh discussed an optical phenomenon called voir rouge, or “seeing red,” that legend held to be common among the mentally ill. The idea affected Van Gogh’s paintings from this period, but its importance until now has been lost to history. In Bernard’s transcription this phrase became noir rouge, or “black red,” a term that, having no clear meaning, was all too easy to dismiss as gibberish.

Passages previously omitted for reasons of pride or propriety have been restored. In 1880, for instance, when Van Gogh was 27 years old and experiencing one of his periodic bouts of religious fervor, his father—an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church—wanted to have him committed to a mental institution in Belgium to spare the family undue embarrassment. The following year, in a letter to Theo, Vincent referred back to the incident “when Pa wanted to put me in an asylum against my will,” but this quote is nowhere to be found in previous editions.

Luijten and his colleagues provide a vivid context for these events in their annotations, which draw upon a wealth of materials from the Van Gogh Museum’s archives, including unpublished correspondence between members of the Van Gogh family other than Vincent and Theo. “The word ‘concern’ is the one you read most in those family letters,” Luijten notes. “‘We are so concerned. What are we going to do with him?’ They cared about Vincent, but he was a quite difficult personality.”

The letters, of course, also reveal Van Gogh’s intense and obsessive interest in art. The painter often worked out visual ideas through his correspondence, describing specific motifs to his brother or to Bernard. Likewise, he was constantly making art-historical allusions. Luijten and his colleagues have identified 1,400 specific references to paintings by artists other than Van Gogh—as well as 600 to Van Gogh’s own paintings—documenting these and, in most cases, providing photographs. In total the new edition is accompanied by some 4,300 images, laid out with consummate skill by the designer and typographer Wim Crouwel, who has brought the illustrations, printed text and facsimiles of the original letters into a consistently revealing dialogue.

Also impressive is the project’s website (, which makes the entire contents of the print version available online, free of charge, although with an admittedly less eye-popping presentation. Specialists may in fact find the website to have certain advantages over the printed books, which contain approximately 1 million words of text, while 500,000 additional words of often fascinating scholarly commentary are available online. The full text of the website is searchable by keyword, date and other helpful criteria.

“If you want to know every reference Van Gogh made to Shakespeare,” Luijten says, “then you go to the advanced search, type in Shakespeare, and there you have it.”

The logic behind making this mammoth scholarly endeavor freely available on the Internet derives partly from the way the project was funded. Half of the money came from the museum—mostly from entrance fees—and half from the Dutch government, via the Huygens Institute.

“With the website, we’re giving people what they’ve paid for,” says Luijten. “People constantly tell me, ‘I’m very happy to hear that my taxes went to this.’ It’s part of our cultural heritage.”