(June 8, 2008) The Phillips Collection, an art museum in Washington, D.C., has once again sent a group of paintings out on tour, and for the next week or so they are here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery.
The last time paintings from the Phillips Collection were here, several years ago, we got a group of abstract twentieth-century still lifes. This was the only occasion I can remember that a painting by Pablo Picasso has been shown in Rochester, but all in all, I don’t think Rochesterians were much impressed.
But now the Phillips has sent us a fine selection of its American impressionists, painted from about 1880 through 1925, and these seem to be better received by MAG visitors. At any rate, we like it, even though, in our pride, we like to think of ourselves as having advanced beyond the ever-popular impressionists in our appreciation of art.
The American impressionists have a reputation as second-rate imitators of the “real” impressionists, the French. But I think that is due more to our inferiority complex on matters cultural than to any marked differences in artistic quality. And, of course, the French themselves have never had much interest in art created outside France, Italy, or Spain. American museums are littered with Monets, Pissarros, and Sisleys (just above, a Sisley from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; below, a Monet that can be seen right here in Rochester), but the Musee d’Orsay has nothing by any American impressionist. (It does own Whistler’s Mother, but Whistler was neither an impressionist nor terribly American.)
The best paintings of the American impressionists match up pretty well with the French. It is true that impressionism originated in France and that the Americans learned from the French impressionist masters. But who thinks less of van Gogh or Cezanne because they studied with Pissarro? Most artists are influenced by somebody.
The best-known American impressionist is Childe Hassam, represented among these Phillips paintings by Washington Arch, Spring (1890), a scene in soft pastels set in lower Manhattan. The show also includes three paintings by another prominent American impressionist, John Twachtman, including Winter (1891), a snow scene painted almost entirely in light blues and grays.
Hassam and Twachtman will remind you of Monet. On the other hand, the juicy summer colors and broader brushstrokes of William Glackens’s Bathers at Bellport show him as a disciple of Renoir, while Theodore Robinson’s Giverny reminds us both in subject matter and style of Pissarro’s mid-career paintings of country people and farm scenes. We were especially taken with two interior scenes: Lillian Westcott Hale’s Home Lessons, a picture of a young girl studying a globe (affinities with Renoir), and Helen Turner’s A Rainy Day, a picture of a woman with a bird in her bedroom (affinities with the French post-impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edward Vuillard).
However, the real focus of this show, and the main reason we returned several times, is that it includes enough paintings by Ernest Lawson (nine in all) to make up a decent exhibition by itself. The thick textures and glittering jewel tones that Lawson used to depict rugged urban and rural scenes, mostly from upper Manhattan and the lower Hudson river valley, put him in a class by himself, and the nine paintings visiting here from the Phillips, painted from 1900 through 1921, are top-drawer. (So far as I know, no other museum owns such a large group of Lawsons.) I was especially drawn to Spring Night, Harlem River, a blue-green scene of a large bridge and the riverbank below it, and Ice in the River, done in greens and browns.
This exhibition does not amount to an overview of American impressionism because Duncan Phillips failed to collect several of the most notable American impressionists, and also because he seems to have preferred landscapes over interior scenes, still lifes, or portraits. Not represented, for instance, are Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, Philip Leslie Hale, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Guy Wiggins, Jonas Lie, Willard Metcalf, or Colin Campbell Cooper. Fortunately, the MAG has some of the best works of Lie (see picture just below), Metcalf, and Cooper in its permanent collection.
The Memorial Art Galley has presented this traveling exhibition together with a room of American impressionist paintings owned by the MAG itself. I had never seen most of them, apparently because they were in need of restoration and not suitable for exhibition.
A few of these were undistinguished, we thought, but most were first-rate, including Edward Redfield’s River Hills (just below) and a small painting by Guy Wiggins, Fifth Avenue in Winter. I was especially irritated to know that Elmer Schofield’s Devon Countryside has languished in storage, unseen and unloved, for so long. (I would like very much to know whether this “Devon” is in England or New England.) This is a fine large summer scene of a sloping village lane, lined with stone walls and dappled with sunlight. Now that it has been cleaned, perhaps the curators will keep it on view after the exhibition is over.
I recommend a visit to the Phillips Collection itself, which is the proud home of Auguste Renoir’s grand and celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party. We have visited this Washington, D.C. museum several times; it’s about 15 blocks northwest of the White House, too far to walk from the Mall, nowhere to park, best reached by subway. Duncan Phillips founded it in the late 1920s to showcase his own personal collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art. Besides Cezannes, Picassos, and van Goghs, it has an outstanding collection of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Mark Rothko, and Jacob Lawrence.