Thursday, July 30, 2015

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso at the Morgan Library

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso 

Morgan Library and Museum

June 12 through September 8, 2015 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso, the superb exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, confirms one of the essential facts about art.

Drawing is the foundation, the one indispensable prerequisite, of all great art.

During the Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari called drawing, "the animating principle of all creative processes." An artist skilled in drawing can see through levels of skin, muscle and bone to glimpse the vitality and intelligence of the person under study.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne,1825

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was one of the supreme masters of drawing in art history. Ingres did not just portray Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne in the 1825 sketch on view in Life Lines. Ingres summoned Defresne to life with a graphite pencil. 

The exhibit at the Morgan wisely focuses on the portrait sketch as its particular theme.  
Life Lines begins with this art form at its earliest moment of full flowering. In short, the signature image of Life Lines is an extraordinary drawing by Albrecht Dürer.

Dürer (1471–1528) approached drawing with a meticulous attention to detail based upon the German print tradition, with its wonderful woodblock prints from the Middle Ages. Another decisive factor was his astonishing, innate talent. On display in Life Lines is Dürer’s Portrait of the Artist's Brother Endres, created with charcoal and white highlights. This drawing, a likeness executed with consummate skill, can stand up to a full-scale oil painting by almost any later European portrait painter.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres, ca. 1518

Endres (Andreas) Dürer (1486-1555) was a goldsmith who is believed to have collaborated with his older brother on metalwork designs. This portrait drawing shows a totally unidealized likeness of Endres. Yet the work, created in 1518, sparkles with intelligence, determination and self-confidence. These were the attributes that enabled German craftsmen to pioneer the printing press revolution of the 1400's. Such a pugnacious character likewise motivated Martin Luther to take his stand against the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of papal indulgences the year before Dürer sketched his brother.

Life Lines displays a work by another German-born artist of the Renaissance. Like Dürer, Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) was acclaimed in his lifetime. A brief look at Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip, however, reveals the chasm between the early Renaissance and the later, post-1517 years. The crisis caused by the split in Christendom after Luther's rejection of papal authority profoundly affected the arts in Europe.

Hendrik Goltzius, Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip, 1614

Goltzius used pen and brown ink on paper to create this extravagant - and deeply despairing -work. All of the plumes and ruffles of the young man's attire, his youthful curls and beaming, healthy face will fade and decay leaving a bleached, pitted skull such as he holds in his left hand.

In the young man's right hand is a tulip, the exotic flower imported into Europe from Asia during the 1500's. Tulip "mania" reached epic proportions in Holland where Goltzius moved in 1577, after surviving a brush with death in a fire that maimed his right hand. The tulip, which the young man holds, will soon wither, as the boy's flowering youth will too - sooner or later.

Goltzius was a master of the allegories and symbolism of Mannerism, the decidedly peculiar school of art that spread throughout Europe following the Reformation. Goltzius was also adept at realistic depictions of human beings in their "everyday" modes and feelings. In this, he pointed the way to Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age.

Rembrandt is represented in Life Lines with a particularly heart-warming drawing. Two Studies of Saskia Asleep, dates to 1635-37, and is one in a series of pen and brown ink studies by Rembrandt. These show a young woman, presumed to be his beloved wife, in bed.  Drawing does not get any better than this exquisite work. The loose, swirling lines of the drawing are almost calligraphic in effect. Yet the details of the two faces, however "sketchy" they appear, capture both the act of Saskia sleeping and - on Rembrandt's part - the act of observation.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Two Studies of Saskia Asleep, ca.1635-37

Saskia died of tuberculosis in 1642, after losing three infant children in close succession. Rembrandt might well have succumbed to melancholia watching his wife waste away. Two Studies of Saskia Asleep shows Rembrandt's wife while she still enjoyed good health but it says a great deal for Rembrandt's stamina that he was able to evoke the same elements of human alchemy in his later portraits of his son Titus and of Hendrickje Stoffels, the love of his later years.

Two Studies of Saskia Asleep is a timeless and universal work of art. It is the kind of drawing or painting that can never be arbitrarily assigned a place on a timeline. In fact, the curators of Life Lines wisely refrained from creating a chronological framework for the exhibition. Instead, the show is organized into four thematic sections: Self-Portraits, Family and Friends, Formal Portraits, and a final, problematical category, Portraits?

Every human being lives in a universe of their own. Not even the broad categories of the Morgan exhibit can quite contain the individuals whose portraits are displayed there. Some of these works do indeed represent family or friends, but the portraits often tell more than what meets the eye at first glance.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), emigrated from Switzerland in 1763 to England. There, his blend of psychological insight and visionary literary motifs helped define the "Romantic Rebellion" as Kenneth Clark once called the wave of restless, anxiety-filled art that began around 1760.

Fuseli made a return visit to Switzerland in 1778-79. While there, he executed a striking, though seemingly conventional, drawing of a young woman named Martha Hess (1759-1779).  Martha Hess was the niece of Fuseli's friend Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), a noted scientist and philosopher.

Henry Fuseli, Portrait of Martha Hess, 1778-79

Look closely at Martha Hess and you will realize that this is a much more unconventional drawing than first appears. Fuseli gave an upward tilt to the eyes which is rare in profile views of the human face. This totally transforms the work, rendering it more of a meditation on the inner attributes of Martha Hess than a study of her facial features, superbly delineated though they are.

Martha Hess was described as "ethereal" in temperament. This would have added to the attraction for Fuseli. Shortly after this beautiful black chalk drawing was made, Martha Hess died in December 1779 from tuberculosis - just like Rembrandt's Saskia. Fuseli continued to draw Martha Hess from memory, always with expressive, searching eyes. Later, four of Fuseli's drawings of her and of her sister, Magdalena, were used as illustrations in Lavater's book on human expressions.

Portraits sketches have a way of insisting upon human values in ways that can be challenging or disconcerting - and ultimately life asserting.

A case in point is Joseph Ducreux's brilliant chalk drawing, Portrait of a Gentleman

Created around 1802, this drawing has long been believed to be a likeness of the great Haitian opponent of slavery and colonialism, Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803).  

Toussaint Louverture led the Haitian resistance to Napoleon's campaign to restore slavery to Haiti. Louverture was treacherously seized and sent to France where he died in prison in 1803. The ship bringing Louverture to France arrived on July 2, 1802. Joseph Ducreux, who drew this stunning work of art, died near Paris on July 24, 1802. Could he have managed to arrange a meeting to sketch the imprisoned opponent of Napoleon in so brief an interval?

Joseph Ducreux (1735–1802) was fascinated with human expressions, as was Fuseli's friend, Lavater. It is possible that he made a special effort to draw a likeness of Toussaint Louverture, soon after the arrival of the captured freedom fighter. But Louverture was quickly locked away in a forbidding fortress in the mountains near Switzerland. As a result, the window of opportunity for Ducreux to have created a drawing of Louverture was very quickly closed. 

There is a tantalizing possibility that Ducreux might will have “seized the moment” long enough to sketch the celebrated Louverture. Ducreux was a painter with wide political contacts and his daughter was married to Francois-Jacques Lequoy de Montgiraud, one of the colonial officials sent by Napoleon to restore French rule – and slavery – to Haiti.

Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux (1761-1802) was an accomplished musician and a gifted painter who had studied with her father. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a self-portrait in its collection which compares very favorably with works by her contemporaries, including her father. She traveled to Haiti with her husband and thus was well-placed to send word to her father of the arrest and deportation of Louverture in June 1802.

Such a note, however, would have had to travel on board the French warship taking Louverture to incarceration in France. At best, this would have been a minor miracle of message sending in an age of slow travel and uncertain delivery. 

Ducreux died with days of a meeting – if indeed it took place. His daughter succumbed the same year to yellow fever, in Haiti. Louverture perished in captivity in 1803. The French lost over 50,000 men in their doomed campaign to regain control of the island. Most of them, like Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, fell victim to yellow fever. Death had the final say in this story.

If this drawing is not a portrait of Louverture, does it reduce the value of this wonderful work of art? A quote from Louverture himself puts this question in perspective.

"In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty," Louverture warned his French captors, "it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep."

 With these memorable words, Louverture struck right to the heart of the anti-slavery crusade - and to the value of Ducreux's Portrait of a Gentleman.

Joseph Ducreux, Portrait of a Gentleman (Toussaint Louverture?), (detail) ca. 1802

Look into the eyes of Ducreux's Gentleman. There you will see the gleam of courage and will power which inspired Toussaint Louverture in his resistance to Napoleon. It is the portrait of the human determination to be free.

The roots of the Haitian revolt were indeed "numerous and ... deep." 

The works on display in the exhibit are drawn entirely from the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum. It says a great deal about the scope and quality of the Morgan's collection that the curators could mount an exhibit on portraiture that addresses almost every aspect of human character.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, ca. 1790

Along with weighty issues like individualism and liberation, Life Lines presents images of people just being people. It is quite endearing to see the lovely self-portrait of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), showing her in a moment of happiness, contentment and success around the year 1790. 

In a swift, shocking turn of events, the French Revolution soon swept away the "sweetness of life" that Vigée Le Brun evoked in her paintings. However, for that moment, the eternal now of her Self-Portrait, the world belonged to Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Paul-César Helleu, ca. 1882-85

A century later, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), depicted the carefree company of his friends and family that enabled him to escape the stressful grind of painting society "pawtraits." Portrait of Paul-César Helleu is a delightful affirmation of the joys of relaxation. Just enjoy life!

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso concludes with a section on works that may or may not be portraits or self-portraits. Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip is displayed here. 

I wonder if the question mark hovering over this final part of the Morgan exhibit should more fittingly be referred to the role of the portrait sketch in the age since Cubism and Surrealism cut the bonds between life-like representation and what is considered "cutting edge" art. That would certainly make for another great exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum.

For now, I will bask in the timeless presence of the assembled company of Life Lines. To them – and especially to Ducreux’s Gentleman – I extend the concluding lines of William Wordsworth’s sonnet in honor of Toussaint Louverture:

Thou hast left behind                                                                                                         Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;                                                 There’s not a breathing of the common wind                                                                       That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;                                                                   Thy friends are exultations, agonies,                                                                                   And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images of Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:  
Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802), Portrait of a Gentleman (Toussaint Louverture?), ca. 1802, Black, brown, and white chalk on paper, Estate of Mrs. Vincent Astor,2012, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Portrait of Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne,1825, Graphite on paper, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres, ca. 1518, Charcoal on paper, background heightened with white. Gift of Mrs. Alexander Perry Morgan in memory of Alexander Perry Morgan, 1973, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617), Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip, 1614, Pen and brown ink on paper. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Two Studies of Saskia Asleep, ca.1635-37, Pen and brown ink and wash on paper. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Portrait of Martha Hess, 1778-79, Black chalk heightened with white on paper, Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1954, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Self-Portrait, ca. 1790, Graphite on blue writing paper, Purchased on the Fellows Fund, 1955, The Morgan Library & Museum.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait of Paul-César Helleu, ca. 1882-85, Watercolor over graphite on paper,Gift of Rose Pitman Hughes and J.Lawrence Hughes in memory of Junius and Louise Morgan, 2005, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Frida Kahlo's Garden

Frida Kahlo's Garden 

By  Adriana Zavala and others
                                                                                                                                        DelMonico Books-Prestel Publishing/$34.95/136 pages

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life at the New York Botanical Garden

May 16, 2015 - November 1, 2015     

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Frida Kahlo was no stranger to suffering and misfortune. Her destiny was shaped by a shattering traffic injury in 1925 and by her tempestuous marriage to fellow artist, Diego Rivera.

"There have been two great accidents in my life," Kahlo reflected. "One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst."

Despite her travail, Kahlo (1907-1954) could always find a refuge in which to handle her pain, a place of inspiration, a private sanctuary. It was her childhood home in a suburb of Mexico City and the place where she died. It is called La Casa Azul. The Blue House.

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is featuring a remarkable recreation of the garden and art studio of the Casa Azul in their major exhibit of 2015, Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.

A splendid companion book to the exhibition, Frida Kahlo's Garden, has been published by DelMonico Books and Prestel Publishing. The curator of the NYBG exhibit, Adriana Zavala, an expert on Mexican art from Tufts University, is the chief author of this book. Zavala and a team of art scholars explore Kahlo's fascination with the flora and fauna of her native Mexico.

This insightful and beautifully illustrated volume also details the process by which the curators of the New York Botanical Garden evoked the Casa Azul in the exhibition space of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

The scale version of the Casa Azul Pyramid at Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life
Rather than aiming to duplicate Frida Kahlo’s garden and studio, the NYBG exhibition is a “reimagined” version of Kahlo's living space and her imaginative realm. This includes a scale version of the colorful Aztec-style pyramid in the garden and a recreation of Kahlo’s studio. The wonderful preliminary designs by Scott Pask reveal both the meticulous attention to detail and the  artistic vision that enabled the NYBG staff to "bring the essence of the Casa Azul to the Bronx."

Scott Pask, Preliminary study for courtyard with pyramid, 2014

Special attention in the NYBG exhibit is given to the natural surroundings of Mexico which Kahlo closely studied as a young person. She had been planning a scientific career rather than one in the arts. An early work, Small Life (II) from 1928 reveals Kahlo's fascination with the diversity of nature around her. After her injury-battered body would no longer allow her to venture far afield, Kahlo and Diego Rivera created a courtyard version of the natural environment of Mexico at the Casa Azul. 

Kahlo's life and art were influenced by her living arrangements due to the long periods she spent at the Casa Azul. These periods of convalescence grew longer and longer as her health declined. But the courageous and stubborn Kahlo never allowed physical disability to define her life. The Casa Azul became - and remains - a testament to the passion and vitality of Frida Kahlo's life.

To an extraordinary degree, the Casa Azul reflected Kahlo's interior and exterior worlds. Kahlo's embrace of Mexican folk culture and love for the spectacular botanical setting of her native country infused her artistic life. Many of the details of Kahlo's paintings and the design of the garden of the Casa Azul are filled with symbolic references to fertility that reach back to the Aztec, Olmec and Mayan cultures of Mexico's past - and to her own personal history. 

Nickolas Muray, Frida with Olmeca Figurine, Coyoacán, 1939

Denied by the tragic circumstances of her health from bearing children, Kahlo created a realm of potent life force in her painting and in her garden.

The Casa Azul, which the New York Botanical Garden so brilliantly evokes, has a design history that conveys a real sense of the social transformation experienced by Mexico during the 20th century. 

The Casa Azul was built in what was then a suburb of Mexico City, Coyoacán, and was purchased in 1904 by Kahlo's father. The original design of the house was influenced by classical French architecture, then in vogue in pre-Revolution Mexico. During the 1940's, the dwelling was redesigned by architect, Juan O'Gorman, to reflect the appreciation of Mexican culture shared by Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, re-united after earlier marital disputes.

O'Gorman (1905-1982) is a fascinating figure in his own right. He was born, like Kahlo, of a European father and a Mexican mother in Coyoacán. He was influenced by Rivera to become a distinguished muralist in his later career.

In a very enlightening essay, art historian Kathryn O'Rourke notes that Coyoacán figured prominently in the rediscovery of Mexico's botanical identity during the childhood years of Kahlo and O'Gorman. An important tree nursery was established early in the 20th century, the Viveros de Coyoacán, and a private garden was created there around the same time, decorated with art work evoking the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico. These elements would feature prominently in the redesigned Casa Azul.

Nickolas Muray, Frida in Front of the Cactus Fence, San Ángel, 1938

There is a magnificent color photo of Frida Kahlo, taken by Nickolas Muray in 1938. It shows Kahlo posing before a fence of tall cactus plants which form a wall around Rivera's house in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City which O'Gorman designed for him in 1931. Later, when the Casa Azul was redesigned, a wall of soaring Organ Pipe cacti was planted there as well. The European flowers, planted earlier by Kahlo's father, were largely replaced by a "flowering of Mexico."  

A flower display at Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, New York Botanical Garden

It is fascinating to scan the lists of native plants and flowers which were planted in the garden of the Casa Azul during the 1940's. Many can be documented in the vintage photographs taken by Muray, Gisèle Freund and others. These range from the silvery, shaggy (but sharp) "Old Man" cactus and floripondio or angel's trumpet to sunflowers and poinsettia.

Red angel's trumpet and poinsettia were merged by Kahlo in an explosively erotic 1944 painting, Flower of Life. Mia D'Avanzaa, the Exhibitions Coordinator at the New York Botanical Garden Library, writes that this is "a fantastic image that combines both male and female reproductive organs..."

Frida Kahlo, Flower of Life, 1944

Even a quick glance at Flower of Life will detect the powerful currents of sexual energy infusing this painting. But there is much more to this work than explicit sexuality, as Ms. D'Avanzaa astutely notes. 

Angel's trumpet contains pain-dulling alkaloids. The poinsettia also had reputed medicinal qualities, which were described in the famous Florentine Codex, compiled in Mexico during the 1500's. It was believed to help lactating mothers produce milk for their infants. For Kahlo, the hidden symbolism in this forceful, disturbing work would have spoken of her recurrent bouts of physical pain and of her anguish at not being able to give birth.

It is interesting to note that the number of still life paintings and flower paintings increased during Kahlo's later years. While the earlier series of Kahlo's self-portraits denotes her attempt to find and express her identity, Kahlo's still life paintings show that she had reached a point of self-realization.

"I paint myself because I am so often alone," Kahlo declared, "and because I am the subject I know best."

During the years when the Mexican garden bloomed at the Casa Azul, Kahlo was now free to explore the roots of her Mesoamerican heritage. In Still Life (For Samuel Fastlicht), Kahlo placed a ceramic votive piece depicting a xoloitzcuintle dog, a breed of hairless dog native to ancient Mexico. This clay-fired statuette came from Rivera's extensive collection of Olmec and Aztec art works which he displayed on the Casa Azul's pyramid.

Frida Kahlo, Still Life (For Samuel Fastlicht), 1951

Xoloitzcuintle dogs figured as Mesoamerican mythology as the escorts of kings and warriors on the journey to the next world. They were also sacrificed and eaten in religious feasts. Native Americans, unlike Europeans, had no aversion to eating dogs.

Frida Kahlo kept several "Xolo" dogs as pets and one particular favorite, Señor Xolotl, figured in her 1949 masterpiece, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xolotl. Surrounded by a superabundance of symbols of life and death, the Xolo sleeps blissfully on the wrist of a goddess figure.

With the ceramic Xolo dog, the Aztecs' companion to the next world, surrounded by an array ripe fruits, Still Life (For Samuel Fastlicht) may be interpreted as a meditation on life and death. This of course is a theme at the heart of Mexican culture and Kahlo increasingly addressed universal and cosmological themes in her painting.

As with all Frida Kahlo's art, there is a personal aspect here as well. Samuel Fastlicht was Kahlo’s dentist and this was one of two still life paintings that she gave him. Kahlo was deeply grateful to the doctors who tried to ease her suffering. The beads of liquid leaking from the melon where it has been pierced by the staff of the banner, however, raise the question of whether these droplets symbolize tears of gratitude or of suffering. 

In 1950, Kahlo endured seven spinal operations and was bed-ridden for much of that year and 1951, the year she painted Still Life (For Samuel Fastlicht). Given her constant pain, it is hard  not to view the still life paintings of her final years as an acknowledgment of human mortality - including her own.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait inside a Sunflower, 1954

In 1954, Kahlo painted a final self-portrait, notable for its rough brush strokes and uncompleted feel. Self-Portrait inside a Sunflower hardly invites comparison with her highly finished works like the Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) also on view. Yet, Self-Portrait inside a Sunflower is a profoundly moving work. The sunflower, known in Mexico as maiz de teja is a native species. Here, Kahlo is not so much wearing petals from the sunflower as she is becoming one herself.

Self-Portrait inside a Sunflower calls to mind the story of Apollo and Daphne from Greek mythology and memorably sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1625. Daphne, fleeing from the lustful advances of Apollo, turns into a laurel tree. Although no chaste nymph herself, Frida Kahlo evaded the misfortunes of life by identifying herself with the natural world of her native country.

Denied by a cruel fate of being able to travel throughout Mexico, Frida Kahlo brought Mexico home to Coyoacán. With the help and  financial support of Diego Rivera, the garden of the  Casa Azul was turned into a microcosm, in the true sense of the word. The Casa Azul became a "small world" reflecting the greater world.

Gisèle Freund, Frida in the Garden, Casa Azul, 1951

This was the world that Frida Kahlo embraced artistically and emotionally. Thanks to the New York Botanical Garden exhibit and the exceptionally well-done companion volume from Delmonico/Prestel, we can go there too.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images of the Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exhibition, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. Images of art by Frida Kahlo, Nikolas Murray and Gisèle Freund, courtesy of Delmonico Books  and Prestel Publishing . 

Introductory Image                                                                                                           Cover Image - Courtesy of Prestel, showing Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940 Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico,D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Scott Pask, Preliminary study for courtyard with pyramid, 2014.(Designed for the New York Botanical Garden exhibit Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, May 16, 2015 - November 1, 2015 Courtesy of Scott Pask Studio.

Nickolas Muray (American, born in Hungary, 1892-1965), Frida with Olmeca Figurine, Coyoacán, 1939. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray (American, born in Hungary, 1892-1965), Frida in Front of the Cactus Fence, San Ángel, 1938. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954), Flower of Life, 1944. Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954), Still Life (For Samuel Fastlicht), 1951. Private Collection, Courtesy of Caleria Arvil, Mexico. ©2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954), Self Portrait inside a Sunflower, 1954. Private collection © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gisèle Freund (French, born in Germany, 1908-2000) Frida in the Garden, Casa Azul, 1951. Throckmorton Fine Arts. Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye 

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C

June 28, 2015 - October 4, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Gustave Caillebotte is an enigmatic figure among the Impressionist painters. He is the exception who proves no rule.

Like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and the other members of the fabled Impressionists, Caillebotte, (1848–1894), helped redefine the course of European art during the 1870's and 1880's.  He was the principal organizer of the third Impressionist Salon in 1877, as well as an innovative artist in his own right. For a few, brief years, Caillebotte was a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, by the end of the 1880's, Caillebotte's role and reputation had begun to fade. By the time of his premature death in 1894, his art was dépassé. When the seminal History of Impressionism was published by John Rewald in 1946, Caillebotte was known to a limited circle as the rich "Sunday painter" who had supported the cash-strapped Monet and Renoir by purchasing their works.

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye is a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., later travelling to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The  National Gallery exhibition follows in the footsteps of the 1975 display of Caillebotte's paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Brooklyn Museum which marked the beginning of serious study of  Caillebotte in American art circles. This new exhibition is brilliantly curated by Mary Morton but leaves a number of questions about Caillebotte still unresolved.

After closely studying the impressive array of Caillebotte's paintings in the National Gallery exhibition, I found it hard to shake-off the feeling that these questions about Caillebotte remain unanswered because they are unanswerable.

Caillebotte was a man of contradiction, both personal and artistic. He embraced the ideal of Impressionism while remaining essentially a realist painter. Some of the other glaring anomalies that cluster about his reputation - or lack of one - are like metal filings attracted to a magnet. They just happened, drawn perhaps by the unforeseen pull of bad luck. 

Caillebotte was a devoted collector with the financial resources to match his exquisite taste. Caillebotte's collection of Impressionist works by his friends, Monet, Renoir and the rest, forms the core of the French national art collection. His world-class stamp collection is a treasure of the British Library in London. 

Gustave Caillebotte, The Boulevard Seen from Above, 1880

Caillebotte was also a major collector of photographs. Many of his greatest paintings feature novel viewpoints and unorthodox croppings. It is almost certain that he was influenced by  photography in choosing such vantage points and effects. Or was his vision so far ahead of his time, that it was due to his personal genius? 

We are unlikely to ever know because Caillebotte's photo collection has dropped out of sight. Caillebotte's brother, Martial, was an accomplished photographer and his work may offer some clues to his brother's artistic development. Whatever the case, a crucial component of Caillebotte's oeuvre is beyond recall.

Caillebotte's life of contradiction continued to the point of death - and beyond. A physical fitness enthusiast and brilliant designer of sailing yachts, Caillebotte, aged 45, suffered a fatal stroke in 1894. He died with stunning swiftness just as Impressionism was gaining world-wide acclaim. 

Caillebotte's family devoted themselves to preserving his art works en bloc among themselves. As a result, very few of his paintings made it into major museums. Scholars like Rewald had little to study in order to form a balanced appraisal and Caillebotte was banished to the footnotes of most books on Impressionism before the 1970's.

Nobody's luck is entirely bad. One of Caillebotte's greatest works was sold by his family  to the American collector, Walter P. Chrysler, in 1954. This was Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), showing one of Baron Haussmann's new Parisian boulevards with rain-slicked cobble stones and umbrella-toting pedestrians. A decade later, the Art Institute of Chicago purchased Paris Street, Rainy Day and it swiftly became a favored work of art at that great museum.

The greatest contradictions in Caillebotte's life and art were not the result of blind chance. Instead, a complex heritage influenced his character and the world view that shaped his art. 

Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848, the second son of a newly rich family.  Caillebotte's father, a textile magnate, had risen high in the dynamic, decadent society of Napoleon III's Second Empire. The world of Caillebotte's boyhood  brimmed with worldly goods and social stimuli. But it was poor in things of the spirit.

Caillebotte relentlessly explored personal fulfillment in an amazing variety of pursuits that included growing rare orchids. I think that this search for meaning was motivated by growing-up during the Second Empire, as it flaunted its tinsel glory.

There is a palpable sense of uneasiness and alienation in Caillebotte's handling of the characters in his paintings. People come and go on the picture plain of his works without engaging each other - or us, the viewers.

When Caillebotte positioned his protagonists in settings rich with drama or architectural detail, however, the situation could be very different.

Gustave Caillebotte, A Boating Party, 1877-1878

A Boating Party, painted in 1877–1878, is an astonishing work of art. It pulses with vigor and vitality. In all of nineteenth century art, there was never a better depiction of the gentleman-amateur, a character-type much praised in Victorian England (and delightfully lampooned in the 1889 novel, Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome.) In the Third Republic, which came to power in 1870 following Napoleon III's fall, the competitive, athletic canotier was also hailed as a model citizen. But Caillebotte's top-hatted rower is a fully-realized, powerfully articulated human being - not a character type.

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Paul Hugot, 1878

Portrait of Paul Hugot, painted around the same time, is utterly, almost shockingly, different. Hugot, Caillebotte's devoted friend, is dressed to "the nines." Every accessory, each component of his boulevardier's attire is splendidly presented. Only his personality is missing. The blank, expressionless face reveals nothing of Hugot's psychological depths. And this work is so emphatically remote in spirit that the viewer is curtly dismissed to move on to the next picture in the exhibit.

Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880

Caillebotte's studies of people often work best when these individuals are turned away from us. The men - and the few women he painted - look out the window and share their universe with us by extension. Or they are totally immersed in their work, like the wonderful Portrait of Henri Cordier, a brilliant Orientalist busy writing a scholarly essay. We, the viewers, are barely noticed but are not excluded either.

In most of the formal portraits done by Caillebotte, a psychological wall is created, barring any level of empathy or understanding.  These portraits are masks rather than likenesses. Even Caillebotte's self-portrait shields his inner being rather than opening his heart to the viewer.

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait, 1888-1889

Caillebotte's landscapes continue this theme.  These beautiful depictions of the French countryside are almost devoid of human presence, except for his boating, rowing and swimming scenes. 

Gustave Caillebotte, Sunflowers, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers, c.1885

Caillebotte's depictions of water sports have a parallel with those of his American contemporary, Thomas Eakins, who studied under the same teacher, Léon Bonnat, though at a different time than Caillebotte. Eakins could be unflattering to the people he painted, but there was nothing in his work approaching the austere, almost hostile, emotions of Caillebotte's portraits.

Gustave Caillebotte, Luncheon, 1876

The sense of unease and conflicted emotions extended to Caillebotte's own family. His 1876  painting, Luncheon, records a family meal following his father's death in 1874. Silence and gloom pervade the setting. His older brother, René, is shown totally absorbed in cutting a morsel of meat.  René died suddenly on November 1, 1876, aged 25. Caillebotte was devastated, becoming convinced that he would live but a short time. His presentiment proved correct.

Caillebotte painted himself into one of his greatest paintings, The Pont de l'Europe.  This is one of the indisputable  masterpieces of European art during the mid-1800's - and a very baffling one in keeping with Caillebotte's ambivalent nature.

The Pont de l'Europe and its companion On the Pont de l'Europe are brilliantly explored by the National Gallery exhibition and the authoritative catalog that accompanies it. 

Gustave Caillebotte, The Pont de l’Europe, 1876

Caillebotte did methodical preparatory studies for these paintings. In an early version, the man and woman walk side-by-side across the cast-iron pedestrian bridge over the railroad yards at Gare Saint-Lazare station. In its finished form, the man (Caillebotte) strides forward, separated by a couple of paces and a million emotional miles ahead of the woman. Was does this mean?

The Pont de l'Europe was a place of assignation during the 1870's. Has the man in the painting given the woman/prostitute (?) the brush-off? Were they instead a couple who has quarreled, the man stalking away from the glaring young woman with her frilly parasol? Could the dog ambling across the bridge supply the explanation? Nothing much is happening here - just a cast of disparate characters each going their separate way.

Gustave Caillebotte, On the Pont de l’Europe, 1876-1877

In Caillebotte's On the Pont de l'Europe, a similar group confront a different situation on the same bridge. Here the massive bridge itself, with its huge iron girders, is the main protagonist, blocking out the rest of the world from the sight of the people crossing over it.  

In the catalog essay on these paintings,  Alexandra Wettlaufer, perceptively writes:

Caillebotte portrayed the unknowability of modern experience in a pair of scenes that simultaneously frame and deny vision through the insistent Xs of the steel structure...

This "unknowability of modern experience" confuses the minds of people, in the case of the first painting,The Pont de l'Europe, and oppresses the human spirit in the second, On the Pont de l'Europe. Claude Monet, in his painting of the same subject, Le Pont de l'Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877, presents a third, terrifying version of the bridge as seen from the train yard below. It is a scene that looks like the pit of Hell.

Confronted with the "unknowability of modern experience," people find a creative outlet or comfort food (or drink or drug) to help them cope. We all have our appetites. The National Gallery exhibit concludes with a group of unsettling still life paintings by Caillebotte of food stuffs and animal carcasses on their way to the dinner table.

These still lifes may be Caillebotte's way of reflecting on the brevity of life, which oppressed his spirit as we have seen. In one case, the rose pinned to the loins of Calf in a Butcher's Shop, painted around 1882, may refer to the nightly "meat trade" on Paris street corners. If so, it should be recalled that allegorical themes such as these were present in the Dutch still life painting from the 1600's that was given an honored place on the gallery walls of the Louvre.

These repellent images - even the Pastry Cakes from 1881 set's my teeth on edge - are hard to "digest." What was Caillebotte attempting to convey here?  Was he extolling the need for hyper-realism? Were these paintings a reworking of themes from the Dutch Golden Age?

Gustave Caillebotte, Chicken, Game Birds, and Hares, c. 1882

Might these paintings, at least the dangling animal carcasses, have been a cunning riposte against the official Salon? Every year, this august body hung "dead" paintings with classical themes on the exhibition walls while rejecting the "living" work of the Impressionists. 

It's a subversive thought. Caillebotte's first great work, The Floor Scrapers, had been rejected in 1875 by the Salon. It was not a "beautiful nude" some contended. Amazingly, the left-wing critic, Emil Zola, panned ThFloor Scrapers for being "so accurate that it makes it bourgeois."

With his revolutionary works being assailed from every side, perhaps Caillebotte created pictures of dead meat to keep his critics "happy."

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875

We do know that Renoir and Martial Caillebotte had to struggle to get The Floor Scrapers accepted by the French state when the Gustave Caillebotte bequest of Impressionist paintings was begrudgingly placed in the Musée du Luxembourg in 1896.

Given the artistic "carcasses" that bedecked the walls of the annual Salon during the 1800's, it's no wonder that Caillebotte charted his own course. He paddled and sailed his boats, grew his orchids, collected stamps and painted pictures the way he wanted to. In short, Caillebotte dealt with the contradictions and challenges of his life in unique and self-reliant ways.

Over a century later, art lovers are still grappling to find the measure of this enigmatic Impressionist. We are just now beginning to appreciate and understand Caillebotte's off-beat "take" on life. 

There are still more questions to answer, however. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye  at the National Gallery of Art is a good place to start. 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image: 
Gustave Caillebotte  Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877  oil on canvas overall: 212.2 × 276.2 cm (83 9/16 × 108 3/4 in.)  The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, The Boulevard Seen from Above, 1880, Oil on canvas, overall: 65 × 54 cm (25 9/16 × 21 1/4 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, A Boating Party, 1877-1878,  Oil on canvas overall: 90 × 117 cm (35 7/16 × 46 1/16 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Paul Hugot, 1878, Oil on canvas, overall: 228.6 × 101.6 cm (90 × 40 in.) The Lewis Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880, Oil on canvas, overall: 116.5 × 89.5 cm (45 7/8 × 35 1/4 in.) Private Collection Courtesy of Christie’s, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait, 1888-1889, Oil on canvas overall: 55 × 46 cm (21 5/8 × 18 1/8 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, Sunflowers, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers, c. 1885, Oil on canvas, overall: 131 × 105 cm (51 9/16 × 41 5/16 in.) framed: 161 × 120 cm (63 3/8 × 47 1/4 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte, Paris

Gustave Caillebotte, Luncheon, 1876, Oil on canvas overall: 52 × 75 cm (20 1/2 × 29 1/2 in.) Private Collection © Comité Caillebotte, Paris

Gustave Caillebotte, The Pont de l’Europe, 1876, Oil on canvas, overall: 124.8 × 180.7 cm (49 1/8 × 71 1/8 in.) Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Gustave Caillebotte, On the Pont de l’Europe, 1876-1877, Oil on canvas, overall: 105.7 × 130.8 cm (41 5/8 × 51 1/2 in.) Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Gustave Caillebotte, Chicken, Game Birds, and Hares, c. 1882, Oil on canvas, overall: 76 × 105 cm (29 15/16 × 41 5/16 in.) framed: 101.5 × 131 × 10 cm (39 15/16 × 51 9/16 × 3 15/16 in.) Private Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Oil on canvas, overall: 102 × 147 cm (40 3/16 × 57 7/8 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Gift of Caillebotte's heirs through the intermediary of Auguste Renoir, 1894

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting

Philadelphia Museum of Art 

June 24 to September 13, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1910, Pierre-Auguste Renoir created his last, truly great picture. Suffering terribly from  rheumatoid arthritis, Renoir drew upon a life-time of artistic skill and fortitude to paint Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel. The subject of this tremendous painting was the visionary art dealer who had supported the Impressionists when few people believed in their work and even fewer purchased it.

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) is the protagonist in a major international art exhibition, currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the third and final showing of this insightful exhibit, which was shown previously at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and at the National Gallery in London.  Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting is on view in Philadelphia, June 24 to September 13, 2015.

The first thing about Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel that strikes one is the uncompromising way that Renoir evoked the "ravages of age." This is a portrait of an elderly man who has suffered his share of life's vicussitudes - and perhaps more than his share.

The second feature of  this remarkable work complements - and confounds - the previous impression. Look closely at the eyes. Renoir places a small dot of white on each of Durand-Ruel's dark eyes. These specks of gleaming light reveal the extraordinary life force lurking behind the shadows and creases of this weary man's face. Like lasers, Durand-Ruel's eyes fix upon us, appraising and taking our measure. There is no deceiving these eyes that have seen so much already.

Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel is a depiction of an old campaigner who still has plenty of fight left. But for the demands of his family's business, Durand-Ruel might indeed have had an impressive career in the French Army. Instead, he used his capacity for strategic planning to lead the Impressionist artists to success on the field of artistic battle.  

Claude MonetThe Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, 1873

Discovering Impressionism has been advertised as the "untold story" of Impressionism. This certainly seems incredible when you consider the number of exhibits that have previously dealt with the "New Painting," as Impressionism was initially called. For once, this claim is no exaggeration. Durand-Ruel's role in the Impressionist saga, though examined in the specialist literature, is here documented for the first time in a major exhibition.

Durand-Ruel's entry into the art world came at the entreaty of his father. In 1851, Durand-Ruel was accepted as a cadet in the French military academy, St. Cyr. But his father's declining health forced him to resign and he devoted himself to helping manage the family's Paris-based firm. This was a company specializing in the sale of paper, with a sideline trade in selling or renting art works. These included works by the leading lights of French Romanticism such as Théodore Géricault and Eugene Delacroix, unexpected choices for a solidly bourgeois family.

In 1855, Durand-Ruel visited the Universal Exhibition, the first French "world's fair." Durand-Ruel's appreciation of art was deepened by what he saw, especially Delacroix's later works and the landscapes of the Barbazon painters. What had begun as a filial duty now became a passion.

Durand-Ruel embraced  avant-garde art before the age of Impressionism had even begun. These Barbizon artists are sometimes called  the School of 1830, a revolutionary year which saw the reactionary French monarch, Charles X, toppled from his throne. Trend-setting artists, like Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau and Gustave Courbet are highlighted in the early galleries of  Discovering Impressionism and the point is well-taken. 

Rousseau's  View of Mont Blanc, painted shortly before he died in 1867, is hyper-realistic, rather than impressionistic.  Yet, it is as revolutionary as Daubigny's landscapes which clearly point to the dawn of Impressionism.  Gustave Courbet's Woman in the Waves shows far less of the female body than Alexandre Cabanel's classical nude, The Birth of Venus, which had been the sensation of the 1863 Salon. There is absolutely nothing mythological about Courbet's naked lady. That is what made the work so shocking in the 1860's and still a bit unsettling today.

 Gustave Courbet, The Woman in the Waves, 1868

These works in the early exhibit galleries raise the question why Durand-Ruel favored avant-garde artists like the the School of 1830 - and later the Impressionists.  Everything about Durand-Ruel's personal life clashed with the kind of art he sold in his galleries. He was politically conservative, a practicing Roman Catholic, a devoted husband and family man and, after his beloved young wife died in 1871, a widower who never remarried. Perhaps the answer lies in the way that he combined a pragmatic approach in selling art with missionary zeal as the advocate of painters whom the haughty, elitist Salon routinely rejected. 

Durand-Ruel's complex character did not include risking everything for  the sake of bold, useless gestures. In 1870, France under Napoleon III lurched into a hopeless war with a well-prepared Germany led by Otto von Bismarck. Durand-Ruel took his family and business to safety in  England. He opened a London gallery at a sales facility at 168 New Bond Street, ironically known as the German Gallery. There he settled down to wait-out events. But "events" came looking for him.

Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878) also sought shelter in England and introduced another artist refugee, Claude Monet (1840-1926), to Durand-Ruel. “This artist will surpass us all,” Daubigny declared.  

Durand-Ruel was greatly impressed with Monet's work and also with that of Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who had escaped the disasterous war as well. Sadly, Monet's devoted - and financially generous - friend and fellow artist, Frédéric Bazille, would never meet Durand-Ruel. Bazille volunteered for military service and was killed in action in one of the final, futile battles of a war that Émile Zola would later describe as La Débâcle.

Following France's humiliating defeat, Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, determined to advance the careers of Monet and Pissarro. Their paintings evoked a sense of modernity and naturalism that was a refreshing contrast with the superficial values of the fallen Second Empire.

“Please be so kind as to send me others as soon as you are able to,” Durand-Ruel wrote to Pissarro when the latter sent him a painting to inspect. 

This was a key element of Durand-Ruel's marketing strategy. Buying en bloc enabled Durand-Ruel to showcase the oeuvre of his favored artists, as opposed to individual works, and to corner the market when their fame and prices rose. 

When we look at some of the early works by Monet and Pissarro on display in the Philadelphia exhibition, it quickly becomes apparent how vital Durand-Ruel's policy was.

Camille Pissarro,The Lock at Pontoise, 1872

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

The Lock at Pontoise by Pissarro and Monet's Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil deal with similar themes and settings. But each artist, with the financial backing of Durand-Ruel, was free to explore and depict the the world in his own inimitable style.

Durand-Ruel extended his support to like-minded artists, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Monet's boon companion from the glorious Grenouillère painting sessions, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). 

 Edgar Degas, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, 1872

In 1872, Durand-Ruel purchased twenty-six paintings from Édouard Manet the notorious creator of Olympia. In a single visit to Manet's studio, Durand-Ruel bought twenty-three of these works for 35,000 francs ($175,000).This heady sum, as the exhibit text declares, was forty times the average French worker’s salary. 

This was not just a daring financial move, but a direct challenge to the Salon who had earlier scorned Manet's work. Even though Manet pointedly evoked Old Masters  like Velazquez in his Boy with a Sword, he continued to be regarded as an enfant terrible by the French art establishment.

 Édouard Manet, Boy with a Sword, 1861

With his declaration of support for Manet, Durand-Ruel challenged the Salon, until now the official arbiter of French culture. With Durand-Ruel on the scene, the Salon was no longer "the only game in town."

Durand-Ruel plotted his moves with the bold tactics of a battle-tested military commander. But, unlike his counterparts in the French Army who subscribed to the headless policy of attaque à outrance, he knew when to retreat as well as to advance. In 1873, a world-wide economic crisis halted France's post-war recovery.  Durand-Ruel slowed the rate of his purchases and after disappointing sales at the first two Impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and 1875, he ceased buying new works altogether for nearly five years.

Was Durand-Ruel more of an opportunist than a crusading advocate of Impressionism? Sisley, who later broke-off with him, declared that Durand-Ruel, “acts as a modern speculator, with angelic sweetness.” 

Durand-Ruel was indeed a "modern speculator." He had very limited financial resources of his own and often borrowed heavily to fund his purchases and the exhibitions he mounted to showcase these works. In one particularly desperate situation, he negotiated a loan based on the value of the picture frames in his gallery. The price of his stock of Monets and Renoirs was so low as to be virtually worthless in the eyes of his creditors.

When the French economy started to show signs of reviving, Durand-Ruel began to purchase paintings from the financially-besieged Impressionists. In 1881, he bought forty-nine canvases from Renoir, followed by more in succeeding years. Three of these works form a breathtaking array of beauty at the heart of the Discovering Impressionism exhibit.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival, 1883

Dance at Bougival, perhaps the most beloved work in the collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, hangs with City Dance and Country Dance from the Musee d'Orsay to from a joy-giving triptych. Renoir's bon vivant friend, Paul Lhôte, sweeps Aline Charigot, later Renoir's wife, off her feet in Country Dance. His dance partner in the other two pictures is the redoubtable Suzanne Valadon, ex-trapeze performer and later a notable post-Impressionist painter.

Exhibition view of Discovering Impressionism  Photo: Anne Lloyd

Taken together, these three wondrous paintings are a major testament to the joys of being human, of being alive. Jaded museum goers need to forget how many times they have seen these in art books. Look at the charred matches and the bunch of crumpled violets at the feet of Suzanne Valadon and the sweetness of her smile in Dance at Bougival. Look at the unabashed happiness on the face of Aline Charigot. Life is short, but a moment of joy can last forever.

Economic upswings do not last forever. In 1882, the collapse of the Union Générale, a fraudulent investment bank, almost caused the closing of the French stock market. Durand-Ruel, who had been purchasing works based on loans, faced the most serious crisis of his career. But fortunately, his good deeds went unpunished.

Among his many virtues, Durand-Ruel was very enlightened in his support of women in the arts. The careers of Berthe Morisot (1841 -1895) and Mary Cassatt (1844 -1926) both benefited from his support. 

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath, 1893

Cassatt, who came from a well-to-do American family, offered loans to help Durand-Ruel ride out the storm. It was Cassatt's connections with America's Gilded Age aristocracy, however, that proved most helpful to him. Cassatt's brother, Alexander, the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bought pictures and so did her influential New York friends, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer. The word started to spread throughout the United States about the exciting new paintings from France.

In 1886, James Sutton and the American Art Association invited Durand-Ruel to organize an exhibition of the Impressionist painters in New York City. Like the gifted strategist he was, Durand-Ruel knew that it was time to throw in all his reserves. He traveled to New York with his son Charles and  forty-three cases of artwork.  The ensuing exhibit, along with one at the National Academy of Design, brought $40,000 in sales to Durand-Ruel and total vindication for Impressionism.

Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris, Durand-Ruel's New York exhibit, is one of the key events in art history. It also represents a significant moment in American history.The 1886 Impressionist sale marked the beginning of the shift of cultural leadership from Europe to the United States that climaxed with the triumph of the New York School in 1945.

Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting is a triumph for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well. This exhibition is intelligently curated, with "special effects" kept to a  merciful minimum. The art works themselves, each of which passed through the doors of Durand-Ruel & Cie., are allowed to tell the story of Impressionism's travail and triumph.  

And like all really good stories, Discovering Impressionism leaves a tantalizing mystery or two for us to reflect upon. 

Dornac, Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in His Gallery, about 1910

Even after taking in this wonderful exhibit, I still wonder what  motivated Paul Durand-Ruel, a man of tradition, to risk so much for pictures of transitory light effects. What really drove Durand-Ruel, who slept with a crucifix above his bed, to tempt fate for the sake of paintings like The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil or Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia  Museum of Art

Introductory Image: 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, Oil on Canvas,  25.6 × 21.7 inches (65 × 55 cm), 1910. Private collection. Image © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie

Claude Monet (French, 1840 -1926) The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, Oil on Canvas, overall: 61 x 82.5 cm (24 x 32 1/2 in.) 1873. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.: Gift of Janice H. Levin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819 -1877) The Woman in the WavesOil on Canvas, 25 3/4 x 21 1/4 in. (65.4 x 54 cm),  1868. Metropolitan Museum of Art, H.O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.62)

Camille Pissarro(French, 1830 -1903) The Lock at Pontoise, Oil on Fabric, 20 13/16 x 32 5/8 inches ( 53  x 83 cm), 1872. Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Fund, 1990.7

Claude Monet (French, 1840 -1926) Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, Oil on Canvas, Oil on Canvas, 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 inches ( 54.3  x 73.3 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, cat. 1050

Edgar Degas (French, 1834 -1917) The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier Oil on Canvas, 12 3/5 x 18 1/10 in. (32 x 46 cm),  1872. Musee d'Orsay, Paris: Bequest of count Isaac de Camondo, 1911

Édouard Manet  (French, 1832 -1883)Boy with a Sword, Oil on Canvas, 51 5/8 x 36 3/4 in. (131.1 x 93.4 cm), 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889 (89.21.2)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Dance at Bougival, Oil on canvas,  71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm), 1883. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Picture Fund purchase,(37.375 )Image: © The Boston Museum of Fine Arts  

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 -1926, The Child's Bath, Oil on Canvas, Oil on canvas,  100.3  x 66.1 cm. (39 1/2 x 26 inches), 1893. Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Fund, 1910. 2

Exhibition view of Discovering Impressionism  Photo: Anne Lloyd

Dornac (Paul François Arnold Cardon) (French,1859-1941) Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in His Gallery, about 1910. Archives Durand-Ruel. Image © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie