Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Saturday I went to see "Collecting the Impressionists," a special exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, which consisted of 12 paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

While 12 paintings may not seem like much of an exhibit, in this case it wsa extraordinary. Included were the following:

Renoir - "Onions" - 1881
Renoir - "At the Concert" - 1880
Renoir - "A Girl with a Fan" - 1879-80?
Pissaro - "Piette's House at Montfoucault" - 1874
Manet - "Moss Roses in Vase" - 1882
Renoir - "A Girl Crocheting" - c. 1875
Pissaro - "The River Oise near Pontoise" - c. 1873
Renoir - "Self Portrait" - c. 1875
Monet - "The Duck Pond" - 1874
Degas - "The Dancing Lesson" - 1880
Morisot - "The Bath (Girl Arranging her Hair)" - 1885-86
Monet - "Spring in Giverny" - 1890

Robert Sterling Clark was the grandson of one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. He began collecting art, but it was his French wife, Francine, who directed him toward the impressionists.

Renoir's "A Girl Crocheting" was the first impressionist painting they purchased and Renoir was to remain a favorite. They owned 39 paintings by Renoir, more than any other artist in their collection. By comparison, they owned seven works by Pissaro and the same number by Monet.

One of the highlights of this exhibit is "Onions," the atypical Renoir painting included. The vibrant colors and the vigorous brushstrokes are quintessential Renoir, but applied to a different subject. Clark said it was one of his favorites, and one that was always noticed by a dealer who visited their home where it was hung.

The Renoir self-portrait was done when he was 34 and shows the artist with a penetrating gaze. Renoir referred to it as a "paltry sketch" but did exhibit it in the 1876 impressionist exhibit. He did not apply the same delicate touch to his own skin tone that he gave to the women and girls he painted regularly.

The other three Renoir works are more typical - all include young women in various settings with the beautiful skin he is known for. The painting of girls at a concert is also a minor art lesson with all the triangular shapes present from the neckline to the position of bent arms and the paper around the roses, not to mention the central rose on the woman's dress.

The Degas is his traditional subject of ballet dancers, but its composition is unusual. It's painted on a diagonal and a splash of color on the costume of the central dancer draws your eye.

The two Monet works are both plein air. The Duck Pond is a study in color, with all the oranges and blues present. "Spring in Giverny" combines the beautiful, ethereal landscapes he is known for, but you can also glimpse what is to come in his later years in the building that is thought to be the rail station. It's as if the future is there in the distance. Unlike the trees, which are soft and delicate, the building has the broader brush strokes and thicker paint seen more often in his later works, particularly the final works he gave to the French state, his waterlillies series that hangs in Paris.

The two Pissaro paintings in this exhibit are both from the first years of the impressionist movement. Pissaro was the only artist to show in all eight of the original exhibits between 1874-1886.

The Morisot painting included is one that Monet owned the last 30 years of his life. The Clarks bought it in 1949 from his heirs. It's always curious to me to see what other artists value.

The Manet painting shown here expresses his unique place in the story of the impressionists. He was always rooted in the more traditional art world, but willing to experiment too. This painting is a perfect synthesis of the two things - a traditional subject of flowers in a vase - given an impressionist treatment.

This exhibit has left San Antonio now and will open at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida on Jan. 20. It will run until March 11, 2007.

After that it will go to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. It will be there from March 24 t0 May 13, 2007.

My hope is to see it again in Nebraska. The Joslyn is a good museum. They have one of the Degas sculptures of the dancer with the fabric tutu. There are only 14 of them. The Clark exhibit will probably get me up there for another visit.

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