A baby’s first experience with fine art at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Nearly five months old, the little guy was excited to see his first Winslow Homer at the Chrysler Museum of Art

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.

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Monet, Corot, and American folk art in Shelburne, Vermont

If you love art but don’t drive out of your way to find it, you aren’t ever likely to wander into the Shelburne Museum. It’s out in the country in northern Vermont, a few miles south of Burlington, at least a couple of hours from where you might be vacationing in the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, or the White Mountains.  It’s also the sort of country where the signs say “Bear Crossing” instead of “Deer Crossing.”  We made it our last stop on a weekend driving vacation in New England.

The entrance to the Shelburne Museum doesn't really suggest what's beyond.

Even though there’s plenty of art to see; the Shelburne Museum isn’t really an art museum; it’s an American cultural history museum, akin to the Genesee Country Museum, near Rochester, or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Its collections are exhibited in thirty buildings on a sprawling campus that also has plenty of well-tended gardens; it was with some difficulty that we persuaded the wife of our bosom, who gardens, to stop picking the flowers and take pictures instead. A day at the Shelburne requires good walking shoes. If you run out of steam, you can find a bench and wait for the wandering shuttle to take you to the next exhibit you want to see, or back to the entrance.

The place is rich with artefacts of everyday life before the 20th century — a collection of old quilts, a covered bridge, a general store, an 1890 stationmaster’s office, a steamboat that used to cruise nearby Lake Champlain, and so on. Not understanding what we were in for, we didn’t allow ourselves nearly enough time. We devoted the couple of hours that we had mostly to the buildings that featured fine art.

Art lovers like us will probably want to make a beeline for the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, which looks like a small version of a Newport mansion and contains a modest but superb collection of 19th-century works by Monet, Courbet, Degas, Manet, Corot, and Remington. These formerly belonged to Louisine and H.O. Havemeyer, a 19th-century robber baron (sugar) who spent much of his fortune assembling a stupendous art collection. Louisine and H.O. gave most of it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but some of the best pieces passed to their daughter Electra Havemeyer Webb, who had a summer home in Shelburne. It is Electra’s varied collections that fill the exhibits at the Shelburne Museum.

The most dramatic of five Monet paintings was a large, glittering The Ice Floes (Les Glacons) (see just above). We were even more pleased with the Corots. There are none of his silver-gray landscapes, but the Shelburne does have several exceptional figure paintings by Corot, including a pre-Freudian Bacchante with a Panther.  On the walls of a room that reproduces Electra’s Park Avenue penthouse bedroom are several Degas pastels of dancers.

Our time at the Shelburne was made especially pleasant by the friendly folk who served as security guards. At most museums the people in uniform seem profoundly ignorant — you won’t get anything but a blank stare if you ask somebody at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to direct you to the Matisses. But the senior citizens who watch over the collections at the Shelburne — volunteers? — not only know all about the Havemeyer family, but also a lot about the paintings and other exhibits. We like talking art with people.

One building is given to the works of a minor American regionalist painter, Ogden Pleissner, whom we first encountered a few years ago at the Canajoharie Art Museum (see this post), whose oil paintings and pastels remind you of both Homer and Hopper. In another building, the Stagecoach Inn, we found a smile-provoking collection of American folk art — sculpture, decorated furniture, and fancy rugs, as well as paintings. Many of these works are anonymous, and their creators probably didn’t even think of themselves as artists. But there are familiar names as well, including Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks (one of his versions of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is here), and Erastus Salisbury Field. We were especially delighted with Field’s The Garden of Eden, a deliciously impossible landscape.

The Vermont shore as seen from the ferry

We never did figure out where the Shelburne Museum was exhibiting the other works of American art that it is supposed to own, including paintings by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Fitz Henry Lane, Thomas Cole, and Eastman Johnson, because we ran out of time. It was nearly sunset on a gorgeous day when we pulled onto the ferry that is carrying cars, for free, to New York State across Lake Champlain from Chimney Point, Vermont while they’re replacing the bridge.

A final visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion

Our wife rightly rebuked us for saying that Renoir's 1886 painting "Garden Scene in Brittany" (Gallery IX at the Barnes Foundation), reminded us, just a little, of Thomas Kinkade's schlock art

We visited the City of Brotherly Love last month mainly to see the “Late Renoir” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but also to make one last visit to the Barnes Foundation before its fabulous art collection left Merion forever. (Emsworth reviewed the dismal circumstances surrounding that impending move, and put the blame where it belonged, in this post.) Of course, the Barnes is awash in Renoirs, especially late Renoirs, and we couldn’t help noticing that the ones at the Barnes were every bit as fine, in quantity and in quality, as the late Renoirs that the PMA gathered from all over the world for the special “Late Renoir” exhibit. (The Barnes has a strict policy against lending works to other museums, which must have frustrated the daylights out of the curators of the PMA exhibit.)

Corot: "Woman Reading" (Grand Gallery at the Barnes Foundation)

On this visit to the Barnes we purposely devoted more time to works we’d had to rush past on previous visits. Amidst the riches of Cezannes, Picassos, and Matisses, we hadn’t paid much attention on previous visits to the sprinkling of earlier masters — El Greco, Hals, Gerard David, Titian, Goya, Courbet, and Corot — throughout the galleries. What pleased us most this time was a first-rate King David Playing the Harp, in Gallery V, for which we have unfortunately been unable to find a digital image. (The Barnes continues to prohibit all photography; we wonder if that will change when the pictures are in their new quarters.)

Horace Pippin: "Giving Thanks" (Gallery XII at the Barnes Collection)

And while we had the impression that Albert Barnes didn’t think much for American art, this time around we noticed more of it than we remembered. Particularly appealing were three gentle domestic scenes by Horace Pippin from the early 1940s, surely some of his very best pieces. Seen in person, these have more of a layered, almost collage-like appearance than a two-dimensional image will suggest. Pippin had no formal art training, and we suppose Barnes, who had a strong patronizing streak, put Pippin in the same category as the untrained French artist Henri Rousseau, whose work Barnes collected extensively.

A wonderful Picasso from his Rose Period, "Figures with a Goat" (Gallery XXIII at the Barnes Collection)

We much prefer Pippin to the French painter. His paintings have depth and solidity and human feeling; the nonsensical fantasy paintings of Rousseau don’t. In fact, we don’t really care for Rousseau at all; he didn’t get perspective and his figures are oddly proportioned. On this visit we noticed that Barnes also collected the self-taught painter John Kane, who painted, of all things, scenes of Pittsburgh.

William Glackens: "Bathing Scene" (Gallery XII at the Barnes Collection)

We knew already that the Barnes Foundation had paintings by Albert Barnes’s friend William Glackens, the American impressionist, but we didn’t remember as many of them as we saw this time around. Also jumping out at us for the first time, scattered here and there, were a couple of paintings by one of our very favorite American impressionists, Ernest Lawson, he of the thick layers of paint and the jewel-toned palette.

Amedeo Modigliani: "Nude - Mahogany Red" (Gallery XXI at the Barnes Foundation)

Several galleries on the second floor at the Barnes were already closed in anticipation of the collection’s moving to downtown Philadelphia next year; only as we were driving home did I start remembering some of the paintings that we didn’t see, like Matisse’s in-your-face Fauve portrait, The Red Madras Headress.  We were told the Barnes will stay open into next spring (2011), although more and more galleries will be closed in the intervening months.

One thing we do know: the new home of the Barnes Collection won't be sitting on acres of lawns and gardens, as it has for decades

We wonder what the Barnes Collection will really be like in its new home when it opens in 2012.  Supposedly the galleries as they are now at the mansion in Merion will be recreated in the new building so that the paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces can all be arranged once more exactly as Albert C. Barnes dictated.

Matisse: "Seated Odalisque" (Gallery XIX at the Barnes Foundation)

Averse to change as we are, we suppose that’s a good thing — although after a number of visits to the Barnes we’ve concluded that the paintings are not best appreciated hung so close together, with so many on a given wall.  The eye tends to wander too easily from one painting to the one next to it, even when you’d rather stay focused.

And too many of the paintings are hung so high that you can’t examine them at close range — and others are off in corners so that you can see them only from one angle. It must also be said that the light in some of the galleries is inadequate; if anything changes at the new location, we hope it will be refinements in the lighting system.

We also have to wonder: will it really be possible for more people to see Barnes’s collection in the new location?  In our most recent visits to the Barnes, the galleries seemed to be crowded to capacity.  Without putting the collection in larger galleries and hanging the pictures farther apart — neither of which seems likely to happen — the Barnes won’t be able to let in more patrons at any given time than it does now.  They’ll be able to attract more patrons only by keeping its doors open longer hours and more days.  More patrons and more revenue are surely necessary if the Barnes is to stop losing money as it has in Merion; we can’t imagine that operating expenses at the new downtown facility will be much lower. 

This congenial domestic scene, "The Luncheon", is perhaps our favorite Renoir at the Barnes Foundation (Gallery XIII)

Our final visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania was the pleasantest.  We made our reservations through a friendly, chatty phone lady; inside, we didn’t run into any of the surly security and crowd-control people that we’d seen in the past.  Finally — too late to matter — the Barnes Foundation has learned a little about public relations. 

Why are they moving? See this post.

Ten pictures you shouldn’t miss at the Clark Institute

Renoir was Sterling Clark’s favorite artist. This 1897 self-portrait is at the Clark.

We were just back to one of our favorites, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which is inconveniently located in the mountain wilderness of western Massachusetts, several hours from anywhere. Of course, getting there over winding roads along mountain streams with breathtaking views of the Berkshires is part of the attraction.

But the art collection is worth the trip. In fact, we would dare to rank the Clark (as it now calls itself) among the dozen best art museums in the United States. If you care for the work of John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Renoir, especially, it’s absolutely indispensable. And its special exhibitions — more compact than those you might see at the Met or the MFA in Boston and often better as a result — are always memorable. That’s the case with this summer’s striking side-by-side Picasso/Degas exhibit.

Here is a modest list of ten pictures at the Clark that we wouldn’t want friends who visited the Clark to miss:

1. Sunset, Saco Bay (Winslow Homer). Much of the art in the Clark was originally collected by Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune.  He had his prejudices; he didn’t like modern art at all, so you won’t see anything at the Clark by Matisse, Kandinsky, or Picasso (except in this summer’s exhibit) — not even Cezanne. And he apparently didn’t think much of American art, either — except, fortunately, for Homer and Sargent.

We first fell for this dazzling 1897 painting — our very favorite Homer, and he’s our favorite American artist — when it visited Rochester in 1988 as part of a marvelous traveling exhibition of Homer’s marine paintings. The scene is Saco Bay, on the southern coast of Maine, not far from Prout’s Neck, where Homer lived and worked towards the end of his life. The women, with their traps, remind you of the paintings of fisher folk that Homer did a couple of decades earlier in England.

We missed seeing Sunset, Saco Bay on our July visit. It’s evidently out on loan somewhere.

2. The Onions (Pierre-Auguste Renoir). Mr. Clark clearly loved the French impressionists best, and Renoir most of all.  When you think of Renoir you think of women in various states of dress and undress, but his still lifes are wonderful. The Onions is our favorite of the dozens of Renoirs, including several still lifes, at the Clark.

3. Fumée d’Ambre Gris – Smoke of Ambergris (John Singer Sargent)  The ancient Egyptians burned ambergris (a kind of whale secretion) as incense, and evidently some Algerians still did when Sargent visited northern Africa in 1879.  In this 1880 painting, was this a priestess, or simply an upper-class woman seeking the intoxicating (and supposedly arousing) effects of the fumes?  There’s just no other Sargent painting like this large, dramatic study in whites. The Clark’s smaller Sargent pictures of Venice scenes are favorites of ours too.

4. Undertow (Winslow Homer). Did one of these unfortunate women perish trying to save the other? The lifeguards seem philosophical, as if reminding themselves that they did their best to warn swimmers about the dangerous undertow. The simple composition of this 1886 Homer masterpiece reminds us of Poussin’s paintings of classical scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

5. The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme).  Besides Renoir and Homer, Mr. Clark’s special interests included the European academic painters of the late 19th century, who could get away with frankly sensual pictures.  Could Gerome have actually witnessed titillating private performances like this in the Middle East, with a nude, snake-entwined youth performing to the music of an exotic flute for half-drugged men with, shall we say, specialized tastes?

6. The River Oise near Pontoise (Camille Pissarro). Sometimes we like Pissarro’s early paintings best, with their willfully flat areas of color (usually muted like the greens and blues in this one); sometimes we lean to his more heavily textured late pictures. This 1873 painting records a moment of change: the near riverbank still probably looks as it had for hundreds of years, while the factories and smokestacks have already transformed the far bank forever.

7. Farm in the Landes (Pierre Étienne Théodore Rousseau). One of the pleasures of returning to any familiar museum is seeing what’s new. At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, which we also visited on our recent New England jaunt, our hearts were gladdened to see a lovely, recently-donated, garden-and-river painting by Willard Metcalf.

In Williamstown, what was new was this large, vivid rural scene by Theodore Rousseau.  A little internet research discloses that the Clark apparently bought it at auction in 2009 for something in excess of $1 million. We think it’ll be the centerpiece of what was already a remarkably fine group of works by the Barbizon painters, including Corot, Troyon, and Millet.

8. Girl with Sleeping Cat (Renoir). We feel sorry for the art-loving French.  What must they think when they come to America, make the rounds of art museums from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington and out to Chicago, and realize that we’ve got a lot more of the French Impressionists than they do?

But the French won’t really feel the enormity of what’s they’ve lost without coming to Williamstown, Mass.  We judge there are more Renoirs in the Clark than anywhere else in America except the Barnes Foundation and the Met — in fact, probably more than in any European museum besides the Musée d’Orsay.  Girl with Sleeping Cat is perhaps the best-known Renoir at the Clark.

9. Apples and Grapes in a Basket (Alfred Sisley). Monet, Renoir, and Degas may be more popular, but our tastes in French impressionism tilt toward Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, both of whom are generously represented at the Clark. This Sisley is special, a still life instead of his usual landscapes.

10. Hunting for Eggs (Homer 1874). Yes, this is the third Homer on this short list, but it’s a watercolor, and it’s part of possibly the best collection of Homer watercolors anywhere (those at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Met are worthy rivals). The group includes gentle genre pictures like this one as well as Adirondack lake and stream scenes (you’ve got to see the jumping trout).

We didn’t see any of the Homer watercolors this summer; for conservation reasons they aren’t exhibited very often. We watch the Clark’s website for them; they’re sure to be back on display one of these years. They’re worth driving a long ways to see.

One Touch of Venus at the Shaw Festival

Here’s the storyline:

Out of nowhere into the life of a meek young fellow comes a vivacious, unconventional young woman who attaches herself to him and puts him in compromising situations. With his spirit and libido aroused, he realizes that he needs to dump the shrill-voiced shrew he’s engaged to.

It’s the plot of the 1972 movie What’s Up, Doc? (with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal) — one of our very favorites — and also of the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby (with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant).

Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre) and his sassy assistant Molly Grant (Deborah Hay, who sings the show's title song)

And it’s also the plot of the only musical play the Shaw Festival is putting on this summer, One Touch of Venus, which is something of a forgotten classic. (Forgotten, probably, because it’s a little too risque for high school drama clubs; we guess that more people see musical plays in high school auditoriums than anywhere else.)

Like a lot of the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, the story is thin and the characters tend to be cliches rather than real people — we’re thinking, for example, the role of Molly Grant (Deborah Hay), an archetype of the hard-boiled, sharp-tongued assistant who is probably in love with her boss. This is not one of the “great” American musicals, we wouldn’t say. But the songs and Kurt Weill’s music are wonderful, there are some fine comic scenes, and the Shaw Festival’s production is energetic and full of good performances.

Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. This 1909 painting is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The centerpiece of the show is Venus, a priceless statue that wealthy Manhattanite Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre) has acquired on the black market for his private art gallery, which is otherwise devoted to modern art. (This art museum junkie’s heart was warmed to see Whitelaw’s studio strewn with reproductions of Matisse’s “Dance” and other masterpieces by Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, and (we think) Robert Delaunay and Paul Klee (somebody tell us if we’re right!). The show’s first big song-and-dance number, “New Art Is True Art,” makes fun of modern art’s supposed disdain for traditional art.

The goddess of love comes on strong to Rodney Hatch

No sooner is the love goddess’s statue delivered to the gallery and removed from her crate than a mild-mannered barber, Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair) arrives at the studio to give Whitelaw a shave. Left alone with the statue, Rodney pulls out an engagement ring that he has just bought for his fiancée and impulsively puts it on the statue’s finger. Amids pyrotechnics, Venus (Robin Evan Willis) comes to life and promptly falls for Rodney, whose ring has apparently broken an ancient spell. She heads off through Manhattan (pausing on her way to sing “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”) and reappears in Rodney’s apartment, where she tries to seduce him.

Meanwhile, Rodney Hatch is chased both by detectives who think he has stolen the statue and by Turks wielding daggers who are seeking to recover their stolen goddess. The chase leads to “Catch Hatch,” a long, frenetic dance sequence featuring much of the cast that is a highlight of the show. In one of the play’s funniest scenes, Rodney goes to the bus station to pick up his stunning but ill-tempered fiancée Gloria (Julie Martell) and his impossible future mother-in-law (perfectly played by Gabrielle Jones); their reunion is interrupted when Venus suddenly materializes. Rodney extricates himself from Gloria, but his romance with Venus hits a snag when the goddess realizes to her dismay that Rodney wants to install her as a housewife in Ozone Heights, a dreary subdivision on Staten Island.

Great harmony from Neil Barclay as Stanley, Kyle Blair as Rodney Hatch, Jay Turvey as Taxi Black, Mark Uhre as Whitelaw Savory

As Venus, Robin Evan Willis is the full package, a stunning, sensuous blonde whose voice has all the range that Kurt Weill’s songs need. We enjoyed all her numbers, including One Touch of Venus‘s best-known song, “Speak Low.” She is well-matched with Kyle Blair, a fine comic actor with a pleasant tenor voice.  We got a kick out of an excellent comic barbershop quartet number (sung in Rodney Hatch’s barbershop), “The Trouble With Women.” The lyrics of the last verse:

When I drove in my glamorous Chevy
I would park in a suitable spot
Then I’d turn to the girls like a heavy
And inquire if they would or would not
I always implied that they had to
But, oh jiminies, was I perplexed
On the night that one said she’d be glad to
I didn’t know what to do next

For the first time that we can remember with a Shaw Festival musical, though, we had issues with both the tempos and the balance on several songs. On the show’s first several numbers, we simply couldn’t make out what the actors were singing; the orchestra was too loud, and the lyrics went by too quickly. The problem was especially acute on Rodney’s ragtime-style “How Much I Love You,” whose lyrics by Ogden Nash are made up of one witty, rapid-fire simile after another.  If music director Ryan deSouza plays Scott Joplin, he ought to be familiar with the instruction Joplin usually inscribed on the sheet music for his rags: “It is never right to play ‘rag-time’ fast.”

We weren’t the only people at our preview performance with trouble hearing lyrics; all around us, people weren’t laughing at the comic songs for exactly the same reason. (It wasn’t a problem with “The Trouble With Women,” though.) Mind, we don’t suggest amplifying the performers; we like to hear vocals coming from mouths instead of speakers.  And we thought the singers were projecting well enough.  But perhaps a smaller orchestra would have suited the show in this venue. A three-piece rhythm section, a trumpet player, and a woodwind player would have done nicely.

We also questioned the pace of Robin Evan Willis’s first featured solo, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” This is a bluesy number whose mildly suggestive lyrics didn’t seem to have maximum impact at the relatively brisk tempo set by the band.

Ava Gardner in the 1948 film

We ran across an excellent essay on “One Touch of Venus” by Mark N. Grant (see this link), which we recommend, and from which we learned that the inspiration for “Speak Low” was the line “Speak low, if you speak love,” from Act II, Scene 1 of “Much Ado About Nothing,” spoken by Don Pedro to Hero. We were also pleased to find that the original Broadway cast recording of One Touch of Venus, featuring Mary Martin in her first major role, is still available; we’ve been listening to it on Rhapsody.

Emsworth’s take on the classic American comedy Harvey, also in repertory at the Shaw Festival, is at this post. And his thoughts on Chekhov’s masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, are at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

Nobody to blame but Albert C. Barnes for the Barnes Foundation’s moving

Renoir's "The Promenade"

(March 2010) No one feels worse than Emsworth that the Barnes Foundation’s fabulous collection of post-impressionist and modern art is leaving its home in Merion, Pennsylvania and moving to downtown Philadelphia.

What an extraordinary place the Barnes is! We discovered it about 15 years ago: the world’s richest stash of Cezannes, Renoirs, Modiglianis, Matisses, van Goghs, and Picassos, all hidden away in a marvelous mansion surrounded by exotic gardens on a hard-to-find residential street in suburban Philly.   [Update: we went back to Merion one last time.  See this post.]

Seeing these masterpieces has been all the sweeter for the sense of enjoying stolen fruit. The Barnes management has always done its best to make visitors feel unwelcome, starting with its arbitrary and complicated rules for making “reservations.” If you do manage to find your way to North Latches Lane, the security people look over your paperwork at more checkpoints than East Berlin during the Cold War. The gallery personnel inside are hostile and irascible. No photography’s allowed, never mind the ostensibly educational purposes of the Foundation. Emsworth was once chastised by parking lot personnel for eating his breakfast muffin inside his car.

Albert Barnes didn't care much for impressionists other than Renoir, but he did collect this superb 1875 Monet (The Woman at Work)

But the aggravation would be worth it if it were only for Seurat’s stunning “Models” and Van Gogh’s “Postman.” For years we were torn between wanting to tell every art lover we knew about the Barnes and the fear of what might happen if it got to be too well known. But now it’s all moot, because the Barnes Foundation is hopelessly and irretrievably broke, and its directors have arranged to move the entire dazzling collection a few miles south into a real museum that’s already being built on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just a few blocks below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2010 is the last year we’ll be able to see the Barnes pictures in their natural habitat.

Words cannot convey the richness and wonder of the Barnes collection . The Cezannes alone! Dozens of first-quality Cezannes, many more than in any museum in the world. The Card Players — the finest and largest in Cezanne’s celebrated series. One of the three Large Bathers pictures (the other two are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in London). Breathtakingly perfect still lifes. And glorious Cezanne landscapes, including Emsworth’s favorite of all the Mt. Saint Victoire vistas.

And more Renoirs than anywhere else in the world. And one of the most important canvases in the history of modern art, Matisse’s 1909 The Joy of Life.

At the Barnes, Matisse's The Joy of Life hangs in the landing of a stairwell

They’re are all being moved, and some people are extremely upset. A couple weeks ago we paid Time-Warner Cable $7.95 to see an overwrought documentary movie entitled The Art of the Steal, whose makers want the world to believe that a cabal of rich Philadelphians have successfully conspired to acquire control of Barnes’s incredibly valuable art collection for their own greedy purposes. (The movie isn’t scheduled to play at Rochester’s Little Theater until April; how was it already on cable?)

The flaws and fallacies in this documentary were so transparent that Michael Moore himself might have produced it. To begin with, nobody has actually stolen anything; the Barnes Foundation still owns the paintings and will continue to own them. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and other downtown Philadelphia venues will simply benefit from having the Barnes pictures in a nearby museum that’ll be easy for tourists to drop in on. The people in the film kept yammering hysterically about a $100,000,000 state budget item that supposedly showed that money to save the Barnes was available and that the move was unnecessary, but one can tell just from the movie itself that no funds had actually been appropriated, and our research has confirmed that this was the case. It was even clearer that any such money would have been earmarked for a new home for the Barnes collection — not to keep the Foundation operating in Merion!

Among Emsworth's favorite Modigliani paintings at the Barnes is this urban landscape, a rare Modigliani that does not portray a human figure

The only part in The Art of the Steal that we don’t really doubt is its drumbeat that Dr. Albert C. Barnes never wanted his art collection to go anywhere else, especially not to downtown Philadelphia. He despised the art establishment types who ran the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he wanted his works of art to hang on the walls just as he left them for the benefit of art students who would be taught his own idiosyncratic theories of art.

But what of it? There’s a lot of tiresome talk in The Art of the Steal about how Barnes hired the best trusts and estates lawyers money could buy to make sure his egocentric vision would be carried on after he died. But stating your intentions in a will is one thing; funding those intentions and making sure they’re carried out is something else. Albert C. Barnes didn’t do either.

Good lawyers, for instance, hardly would have advised Barnes to leave the management of the Barnes Foundation and its money to amateurs. No doubt Barnes thought that giving a small Philadelphia college a perpetual right to name five trustees for his Foundation was a good joke. But what made him think that the college would name the right people? Clearly they didn’t; the results were disastrous. The first director named by the trustees, one of Barnes’s disciples who was even more hostile to the public than Barnes himself, didn’t even keep the collection open to the public for the two days a week that his will stipulated, foregoing important income. For decades the trustees failed to make timely repairs to the building, risking damage to the art. And they failed to develop sources of external financial support for the Foundation.

Whose fault is that? And if Barnes wanted to make sure his enemies in the Philadelphia art community could never get their mitts on his Foundation, why didn’t his will provide that the board of trustees could never be expanded so as to make room for them?

This Cezanne still life at the Barnes, "Compotier, Pitcher and Fruit," is as close to perfection as art can get

Rich as he was, Barnes apparently didn’t endow the Barnes Foundation adequately in the first place, or wasn’t able to. The movie libelously implies that, in recent years at least, the trustees deliberately wasted money and ran the institution into the ground so that the collection would have to be moved from Merion. That’s hard to swallow. But no matter whose fault that was, when the money was gone — and with no one volunteering to put up $150,000,000 to keep the pictures in Merion — what else could the trustees do?

It’s hard to believe that the Barnes pictures are really leaving Merion, no longer to be enjoyed merely by intrepid, difficult-to-discourage art lovers like Emsworth, but instead by unworthy, unwashed masses of tourists in downtown Philadelphia. But only blind fools would think it couldn’t have happened without perfidy and sculduggery.

[We made a final visit to Merion in September 2010.  See this post.]

A pleasant fall drive to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

Rauschenberg Robert -- Migration (1959) (Cornell)

Robert Rauschenberg's "Migration" is part of an excellent collection of contemporary art at the Johnson Museum

College art museums present special challenges for the art museum junkie because so often they’re hard to get to.  True, at the Yale University Art Gallery, in New Haven, you can just pull into a parking garage and walk a block to the museum.  But others are buried in the middle of impenetrable university complexes where there’s no parking at any price (think Harvard and Princeton).  And many of the others are on campuses a long way from metropolitan areas that you might be visiting anyway (think Williams College, in the mountains of western Massachusetts, or Bowdoin College, way up in Maine).  You have to make a special trip.

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Seen between Geneva and Ithaca

The art museum at Cornell University discourages visitors in every possible way.  The campus is a goodly drive from almost anywhere (two hours from Rochester), and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is in the middle of a maze of a campus with practically nowhere to park — especially right now, with street reconstruction and 100_9137museum expansion going on.  Like so many other college art museums, it simply doesn’t take the general art-loving public into account.  It doesn’t even charge admission!  We made the drive a couple of weeks ago on one of the finest fall days we can remember, pausing on the way there and back to take pictures of fall foliage, century-old churches, and fantastic falling-down barns and and rusting farm equipment.

100_9050 -- museum bldg croppedWhat other art museum in New York is housed in such an aesthetically interesting building as the Johnson Museum — other than the Guggenheim (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Met itself?  This is a 1973 building designed by I. M. Pei, ideally situated on top of a hill overlooking all of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.  We liked it right away.

David Bailly - Vanitas Still Life with PortraitWe weren’t blown away by any particular part of the Johnson Museum collection, but there was still a lot to enjoy. The European art goes back 500 years, but 500 years is a lot to cover in just three galleries or so. We spent time pondering over an elaborate vanitas still life from 1650 by the Dutch artist David Bailly (just above), in which every item symbolizes some passing worldly preoccupation of men, and we admired several eighteenth-century Daubigny - Fields in the Month of Juneportraits by George Romney and other Englishmen of his day. The Johnson museum has only a few minor pieces by the French impressionists, including a Monet that’s on loan and not part of the permanent collection; the jewel of its nineteenth-century gallery is a large though not especially lively landscape by the major French Barbizon 100_9069painter Charles-Francois Daubigny, titled “Fields in the Month of June” (just above) — surely one of the artist’s finest accomplishments. Twentieth-century European art was better represented with major pieces; we were delighted to find a six-foot-tall sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, who is a favorite of ours, entitled “Walking Man II.”

The American collection was somewhat meatier, with a satisfying gallery of paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, and others of the Hudson River School, and another gallery with mostly American impressionist pieces. But the Johnson Museum’s twentieth-century American art — mostly abstract, with fine pieces by Hans Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Philip Guston — is really worth going out of your way to see.

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Cayuga Lake from the sculpture garden

And so is the Museum’s unique contemporary sculpture garden, for which the architect reserved a pleasant, uncrowded, open-air balcony off an upper floor. It has a spectacular view of the Cornell University campus and Cayuga Lake.  The highest floor of the museum is devoted to Asian art (we don’t know enough about it to comment, but it’s an impressive collection); this floor is surrounded by large windows with views in all four directions.

When we visited, the Johnson Museum was hosting a fascinating traveling exhibition of the works of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and other artists of the Bloomsbury school that surrounded Virginia Woolf.  If this is the caliber of exhibitions that the Johnson Museum attracts, we’ll have to pay closer attention.

We stopped to see the overlook at Taughannock Falls, just a few miles north of Ithaca, and made a mental note to come back someday to hike the path down to the gorge.  In Trumansburg, we dropped more money than we should have at Green Horse Books, an excellent used bookstore 100_9119that we spotted as we were driving through.  We took some more pictures of decrepit old farm structures, and helped the wife of our bosom to pick out a pumpkin for the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasons.

American Art at the National Academy Museum

Abraham Leon Kroll - The Conversation (Natl Academy NYC 1920)

Abraham Leon Kroll's 1920 painting "The Conversation" reminded us of portraits George Bellows was painting about the same time and restaurant scenes Edward Hopper would be painting in another 10-20 years

In a post last year, we were righteously indignant about the failure of the National Academy Museum to exhibit its large fine permanent collection of American art. But in 2009 the National Academy has been mending its ways. Twice already this year the National Academy has filled its modest galleries with nothing but art from its own collection. We happened to catch both shows.

This facade of the National Academy Museum looks just like another narrow Fifth Avenue townhouse (it’s half a block up from the Guggenheim).  You have to go through the gift shop to get to the ticketseller (clearly a volunteer), who doesn’t have much to do because the National Academy Museum unfortunately doesn’t get much traffic.

Last winter the National Academy was offering an exhibition of landscape paintings called “American Waters.” This exhibition was not, frankly, very focused, since 200 years of art were represented and the subject of “waters” Garber - By Addingham (Natl Acad NYC 1911)takes in a lot. But we were still delighted to see so much first-rate American art (about 50 paintings out of a collection of over 5,000 works of art) come out of storage. The one that pleased us most was a painting by Daniel Garber, one of our favorite American impressionists (see this post), titled By Addington (just above), a gentle scene of farm life along a Pennsylvania river.

Kensett - The Bash-Bish (Natl Acad NYC 1855)We saw a number of Hudson River school paintings, including what is surely one of John Frederick Kensett’s finest, The Bish-Bash, which portrays a dramatic waterfall in western Massachusetts. We’ve added the Bish-Bash Falls to our list of places we want to see when we visit New England.

Currently the National Academy has another exhibit of pieces from its collection whose common feature is the portrayal Junius Brutus Stearns - The Millennium (Am Acad NYC 1849)of the human face and figure; it runs till November 2009. Once again, the theme of the show seems to be fairly loose, but no matter, because they’ve uncarted plenty of gems: some very recent pieces as well as 200-year-old paintings like Junius Brutus Stearns’s old-fashioned utopian scene,The Millennium, based on the passage from Isaiah: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; Thomas Waterman Wood - The Rag Picker (Natl Acad NYC 1859)(and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6 (NIV). We are always drawn to 19th-century American genre paintings; here we saw for the first time Thomas Waterman Wood’s cheerful portrait of a Parisian urchin, The Rag Picker.

The overall quality of these pieces is astonishingly high, given the relative obscurity of the National Academy Museum. Even after seeing only a modest sampling of its permanent collection, we feel sure that its holdings are superior to the American art collections in all but perhaps a half dozen museums in the United States.

Eakins -- Self-Portrait (Natl Acad NYC 1902)

Thomas Eakins, by Thomas Eakins

One of the unique features of a visit to the National Academy is that museum volunteers are likely to come up to you and strike up a conversation about a work you’re looking at. It’s happened to us several times now; during our recent visit we had a very pleasant exchange with a highly knowledgeable elderly lady about a self-portrait by Andrew Wyeth and the Wyeth family generally. And, indeed, two of the best works on display were the Wyeth self-portrait and a very rare self-portrait by Thomas Eakins.

Sargent -- Portrait of Monet (National Academy NYC)

Claude Monet, by John Singer Sargent

It is our sense that the National Academy Museum is especially rich in portraits because, when artists have been nominated (over the last 150 years) to membership in the National Academy, they are expected to contribute an example of their work to the museum, and not infrequently they give paintings of themselves. Omitted from this exhibit is a portrait by John Singer Sargent of the French impressionist Claude Monet; we know it’s somewhere in the National Academy’s vaults.

The twentieth-century is well-represented in this exhibit. We were pleased to see a 1930s-era painting by one of our favorite American artists, the regionalist Marsh Reginald -- Barrel of FunReginald Marsh, that was new to us, entitled Barrel of Fun. It shows people in a large tube in an amusement park in which people fall all over each other as the “barrel” slowly turns. We haven’t seen such a thing lately; the likelihood of a fellow’s being kicked in the teeth by accident, or a lady’s being groped Alphaeus Philemon Cole - The Blank Canvason purpose, would seem to be fairly high, and no doubt the liability insurance carriers have balked. We were also struck by a self-portrait of a painter at his craft of figure painting, Alphaeus Philemon Cole’s, The Blank Canvas, which reminded us of a painting on a similar theme by John Koch right here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery. We noted the Koch painting in an earlier post.