Last weekend found us visiting our fine new grandson and his parents in their new home in Hampton, Virginia (a ten-hour drive from Rochester). The little fellow was a newborn no longer and needed to be introduced to high culture, and we were anxious to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art, in nearby Norfolk — we’d never been. So off we all went. The little guy seemed as tickled with the colorful stuff on the museum walls as his grandfather was.
Frankly, the Chrysler Museum of Art might not be the best art museum for a neophyte to visit. It has no Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cezanne, or Picasso, and none of the paintings you see on art prints and posters. Its best-known piece is probably Gauguin’s “The Loss of Innocence,” which uses pretty much the same color scheme as our grandson’s onesies and blankets. (We blushed, at a loss for words, when the intellectually curious boy, with a questioning look, mutely demanded an explanation of the picture’s symbolism.) Nevertheless, with only a few exceptions (disappointing pieces by Corot and Monet), the overall quality of the works at the Chrysler, from the Old Masters to the modern masters, seemed very high. We judge that, in assembling this collection, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. opted for first-rate works by second-tier artists rather than second-rate works by the most popular artists.
New museums usually mean pleasant surprises. The one we enjoyed most was a large, wide 1868 canvas by Gustave Doré entitled “The Neophyte (First Experience of the Monastery),” a witty portrait of a terrified young monk sitting with a row of grubby older monks, clearly wondering what possessed him to take orders. We had known Doré only as the painter of landscapes like the dramatic “The Scottish Highlands” at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is a favorite of ours. Mr. Chrysler deserves credit for snapping up this Doré masterpiece instead of throwing away his money on a mediocre Picasso.
And we are always delighted to stumble across anything by James Tissot, a Paris-trained Frenchman who didn’t follow friends like Degas, Manet, and Whistler into impressionism, but instead found his niche in the art market painting fashionably dressed women and their consorts in social settings. The Chrysler’s “The Artists’ Wives” is Tissot at his best.
There must have been a period of time in the last century when art collectors could snap up pontillistic paintings by the contemporaries of Georges Seurat at reasonable prices. (Pontillism is a technique in which a canvas is covered, not with brushstrokes of paint, but with hundreds of small dots of paint; the viewers’ eyes blend the colors.) Like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which we visited several years ago, the Chrysler Museum has a modest group of works in the pontillistic vein. We were especially attracted to one by Maximilien Luce, called “The Footbath,” that showed the influence of Millet. It might well have illustrated a scene from Zola’s L’Assommoir, a late-19th-century novel about lower-class Parisians in desperate poverty that we had just read.
This American art lover’s trip to Norfolk gave him a chance to see less familiar but nevertheless worthy pieces by Winslow Homer, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam (the Chrysler exhibits his masterpiece “At the Florist” in the same gallery as the European impressionists), John Henry Twachtman, Reginald Marsh (an especially risque nightclub scene), and Richard Diebenkorn. But the museum’s strength is in European art, which covers 600 years and (besides the paintings already mentioned) includes first-rate works by Veronese, Jan Gossaert, François Boucher, Pissarro, and Matisse (both works by these last two artists were out on loan when we visited; we saw the Pissarro in a fine exhibit at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts last fall).
One thing more about the museum in Indianapolis: when we were there with the new baby’s daddy several years ago, we were amused to find that a Homer (“The Boat Builders”) prominently featured in the museum’s promotional materials was in fact one of the smallest Homer oil paintings we’d ever seen (about 7 x 14 inches). But the Chrysler can top that. Besides an exceptionally fine 1882 impressionist double portrait by Renoir (see just above), the Chrysler boasts what’s surely as small a Renoir oil painting as you’ll ever find, a 5 x 7 inch vignette-style painting called “Trees by the Edge of a River,” which the museum bought in 1989 after soliciting 20,000 contributions from members of the public. We’d be curious to know exactly what it cost.