Part Two: The Chester Dale Collection

October 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

~please read the preceding entry because it details the first half of this exhibition~

National Gallery of Art ~ Washington, DC
closes July 31, 2011

The Human Figure

The fourth room in the exhibition is devoted to the human figure. It is not limited to simple studies of the human form, instead it includes portraits of men and women, depictions of allegories, and images of the Exotic Other. The largest painting in the room was a shock to me, not so much in subject matter or presentation, but because the painter was not whom I was expecting.

This large Classical image was created at the hand of Renoir. I am not entirely sure why this came as such a shock to me since, historically, artists almost always experiment with traditional styles of painting before discovering their own unique expressive mode. The large oil is well executed and beautiful, but it is not what I would have expected from this collection, given the number of works that represent certain artists’ most well-known styles (at least well-known by the 21st century audience). Not to spoil the surprise, but there are more “stereotypical” Renoirs in the remaining two rooms of the exhibition, which will be discussed later.

I hate to pick on Renoir, but another of his paintings distracted me in this room: his Odalisque.

I almost prefer his Goddess-Huntress to this sickly, gaudy representation of the Exotic Other. Even his saccharine children seem preferable, if only so I can look at anything but this ultimately vulnerable and submissive woman. The phrase “poor thing” comes to mind… When considering the aesthetics of the work alone, the paint is handled marvelously and the level of detail is mesmerizing. The color, especially, is outstanding. I am a particularly critical judge of hands since they are so frustratingly hard to paint well, and Renoir has passed my test. The right hand in particular is so delicate, so light as it rests on her thigh. Unfortunately, her beautiful hands cannot negate my distaste for her pasty, flabby neck and double chin, the latter of which seems only to be apparent because of the awkward lolling of her head as she lifts drugged eyelids to peek meekly at her next “visitor”. Shall we move on to Matisse?

(for a better view, which I strongly recommend, please click here.)

Now, as some of you might recognize, the painting on the far left is Matisse’s interpretation of the Odalisque. Let’s compare this painting to Renoir’s. Is the woman active? Yes. She’s actively seductive and would be downright irresistible if it weren’t for the American taboo against hairy armpits. Does she look dead? No. I apologize profusely for the poor photo quality (the lighting in galleries is so dark these days due to an overwhelming tirade from conservators about the harm light does to painting). She is the most wonderful color of pink. The pink is so wonderful that Crayola probably came up with a name for it, perhaps ”Lover’s Blush” or Baby Cheeks”. She is fully conscious, intentionally inviting, and a positive delight to look upon.

While I could dwell on Matisse’s Odalisque for days, I would instead like to point out the careful curating of these three pieces. They are hung on the wall in the order that I have shown you, although I admit they were well over a foot apart (blogs have their limitations). The works share a dialog about Matisse’s handling of paint. From the left, the Odalisque exhibits his use of smooth painting, the middle exemplifies his use of rough painting, and the far right shows a sketchier application of paint. In the portrait of his wife (the far right), he uses oil paint in almost an amateur way, applying paint in thin washes with jittery strokes and smudges. His use of color is very sectionalized, as if he designated specific colors for specific shapes. The only place the colors blend is over the woman’s shoulder, but even there one can see states of color instead of a unified whole. The sketchiness and smudginess of the surface creates a wonderful movement that plays with the movement of the contour lines of the woman. I especially want to draw your attention to her shoulders. The [viewer’s] left shoulder is crumpled with ripples of yellow fabric forming the shape of her sleeve. The right shoulder is totally smooth, just a gentle slope connecting her neck with the corner of the canvas. I especially appreciate the uneveness of her eyes. Their imbalance is unsettling yet captivating.

The center piece is most certainly the centerpiece of the Matisse section. I hardly even notice the yellow vase with its red flowers or the reed mat on the floor to the right because I am so captivated by the woman before me. The figure itself is unremarkable. The hands, in particular, are abbreviated to the point that in any other painting I would be unable to look away from them out of sheer shock that a painter could be so careless. From the wrists down, however, this is the most perfect painting of a human being. The fact that the space between her right elbow and the wall is a different color from the outer dark space does not even bother me because I am too wrapped up in the perfection of milky skin tones, splashes of highlights, and flickering shadows. The play between warm and cool tones is what makes this painting ultimately successful, even more so because he uses cool tones when one would think he would use warm tones and vice versa. The texture of the paint—its heavy application and the broad strokes of the brush—contrasts nicely with the delicacy of the subject. This woman will not blow away with the wind or shatter at your touch. The dramatic lighting completes the boldness of the piece.

A famous Van Gogh hangs on the opposite wall of the gallery from the Matisse paintings. There is much that can be said about this painting, but as I am the self-dubbed Hand Nazi, I cannot resist discussing Van Gogh’s hand-ling of the appendages.

(please see the entire painting here.)

Seriously, what the hell happened? Gangrene? Zombie apocalypse? A righteous acid trip? I do not know what happened here, but I can honestly tell you that I am loving it. For such a relatively “normal” (dare I say almost sweet) portrait, I am equally horrified and mesmerized by this green and brown hand. The colors help accentuate the normalcy of the other hand, which is quite lovely in execution. The golden yellow highlight on top of the hand and the hatching of the shadows are beautiful, especially in comparison with the alien appendage. The shape of the alien appendage, if one can see it beyond the coloring, is elegantly rendered and the blue he chose for the wedding band is a brilliant shade, somehow overcoming the greens and browns in their demands for attention. The painting overall is not that far-fetched in color scheme, as far as Van Gogh’s oeuvre is concerned. But that hand… it is fascinating.

Although I will not dwell on her, I must mention an absolutely fabulous Modigliani, a distant neighbor of Van Gogh’s green-handed girl. Allow yourself to revel in her warmth for a minute:

You may recall that I mentioned a Russian painter in the previous post. A Russian painter, I admit, I have never heard of. Chaim Soutrine is best known (to apparently everyone else in the art world but me) for his paintings of cow carcasses, which I probably would have recognized despite not knowing the artist’s name. In this particular exhibition, however, Soutrine is represented by a single painting of a boy.

The luminosity of the red vest is easily noticeable, even from across the room. This painting is quite simple in composition (a big X across the canvas) and in color (red, black, and a bit of blue) but the painting merits a closer look. The viewer is drawn in by the luminosity of the vest, and held captive by the subtleties of the work. The delightful crinkle of the white shirt, for example, as it peeks over the edge of the vest merits at least a few minutes of viewing time. The criss-cross of the necktie repeats the criss-crossing composition and offers a surprising, yet subtle, addition of purple and green. The boy’s face is roughly sketched in, yet the colors suggest a luminosity similar to the vest, as if side of his face was lit by a fire.

The works of Gauguin have thus far disinterested me, yet this self-portrait redeems him.

There is something about it that is captivating. Is it a snake in his hand? Does the combination of the snake with the apples in the background relate to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve? Clearly, Gauguin wears a halo. But what does it all mean, Basil? The National Gallery’s website offers a bit more (read more here) but is anything but definitive. This painting is worlds more interesting than his paintings of exotic women, even without the religious symbolism. Aesthetically alone, the sculptural quality of the face contrasts wonderfully with the flat, oversimplified forms of the flowers. Curves control the composition: arching up, slicing down, and curling around. To some, Gauguin’s association with himself as a godly figure (what with the halo) maybe offensive, but let’s end this entry with something a little more blatantly offensive.

I absolutely love Toulouse-Loutrec. But that does not change the fact that if you sit in the National Gallery and watch people avoid this painting like Van Gogh’s gangrene, you can see how this image might be a bit blatant. I think what may turn people off the most about it is how incredibly awkward it is to see someone with a top on, but no bottoms. Without being vulgar, I would like to draw the comparison to seeing someone sitting on a toilet—their legs are covered, their top is covered, but there’s a significant private section made visible. I think that “offense” is why people tend to blush at or intentionally avoid this painting. Nothing about it is particularly “graphic,” it is simply an intimate and potentially awkward intrusion upon these two women. The rendering of the figures is superb though, and exemplifies Loutrec’s skill at representing the human form. The pink drapery falls in delicate crinkles around the blonde woman. His use of lines help accentuate shadows an add depth, without being too “cartoony” or flattening the image. I know I have spoken before about his wonderful attention to facial features, but I must draw your attention to the carefully rendered faces once again. He was so specific he even included the blonde’s extra rolls on her rump. His use of color is, as always, fantastic, especially in the shadows where unexpected colors bloom. Look closely at the blonde’s forward leg for these colors. Always applauded for suggesting movement, Loutrec creates a linear movement through repetition of form. The women are not identical, but they mimic each other in form enough to create the feeling of repetition that moves the painting along. I especially love the whispy shawl the red-headed woman wears and how Loutrec implied her form beneath it through color manipulation and a careful use of linear elements. The most offensive thing I find about this painting is that so many people pass it by.

Stay tuned for the final part of this exhibition review! Coming soon!


From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

October 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

National Gallery of Art ~ Washington, DC

closes July 31, 2011

The biggest challenge I found with the Chester Dale Collection was trying to prevent it from knocking me clear off my feet. The Collection is astounding, not only in size (keep in mind, the exhibition shows only a selection of his entire art holdings) but in fame. I am not talking about the fame of the collection itself, especially since I had never heard of Chester Dale before this exhibition, but the fame of the names within. In the text that follows I will discuss the works of these (dare I say) infamous painters and I believe you will feel the same sense of awe that overwhelms the viewers of the exhibition. My focus on these well-known artists is not necessarily because they are the best, but is because they make up the entire exhibition! There is only one artist who I did not recognize, and I will discuss his painting later on.

A blurb on the collector from the exhibition pamphlet:

Chester Dale (1883-1962) was a successful businessman who made his fortune on Wall Street in the bond market. He thrived on making deals and translated much of this energy and talent into acquiring great works of art, a passionate enterprise undertaken with the encouragement and discerning guidance of his wife Maud (1876-1953), herself a trained artist and critic. Together they amassed one of the finest collections of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French paintings in North America, much of it later bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art.

Now I will take you through the exhibition as you would walk through it. There are two entrances, one from the East and the other from the West; I entered through the West entrance, so that is the direction we will follow with this “tour” of sorts.

The Thematically Ambiguous First or Last Room

The first room (or last, depending on which direction you enter) is by far the strangest combination of works in the whole exhibition. The theme of the room still escapes me, even after long pondering over hot tea. When you enter, the entire right section of the gallery is devoted to Picasso. To your left, Rousseau, Gauguin, Manet, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Yes, the theme of the room may simply be “French and Spanish artists,” but that seems odd considering the grouping. The Rousseau is true to the artist’s style: a muted green palette covers a canvas that depicts a jungle scene, playing with the flatness of the picture plane and revealing/hiding the subject within. The Gauguin is equally unsurprising: yet another high contrast, brightly-colored illustration of the Exotic Other. These could work together since they both feature a jungle setting and exotic subjects, but with the Manet and the Lautrecs along the same wall… It is odd indeed. Manet’s “Old Musician” is large, approximately the same size as the Picasso hanging directly across the gallery from it. These are clearly a pair. In Picasso’s painting, a family of circus folk wait in a seemingly desolate landscape. In both the Picasso and the Manet, the colors are muted almost to the point of being muddy. The tone of both paintings is somber. Beyond these large paintings, in the far corners of the gallery, are the true gems of this room. Although they can lead me to no solid conclusion about the thematic idea that called these works together, the paintings make the confusing room worthwhile.

This Picasso would have made a far more intriguing centerpiece for the Spanish side of the gallery. The colors alone promote it above the large, muddy canvas of the circus family, and the dramatic lines and commanding presence of the man overshadow “The Lovers” and the painting of the two boys. My camera does not do it justice. Layered up and scraped down, the colors are rich and deep. Threads of reds, blues, and yellows streak down the man’s shirt, continuing the linear movement from his forehead, where greens and yellows alternate to build shape and add a visual cadence to the work. The red tie completes the piece, adding to the boldness of the elements and tying together the composition so the eye holds steady.

In the opposite corner of the gallery, the Lautrecs hang, largely unnoticed by the museum-goers as they flock to the canvases of Manet and Picasso. Bigger is not always better, and in this case, the smaller works of this gallery hold far more interest than the larger. For the sake of length, I will only mention one specific work by Lautrec in this gallery. Please see below.

As you can see, this is a work of wonderful energy created by Lautrec’s characteristic manipulation of line to enliven the surface of the piece. The subjects, as far as depicted actions are concerned, are surprisingly motionless. Lautrec is most well-known for his dancers and busy bar scenes, but here the central figures are still, the only movement is suggested by the women in the background. Despite the stillness of the main figures, the image is charged with tension. Some people hold Lautrec to be little more than a racy cartoonist, but even a cursory glance at his handling of the human form, most especially the face, reveals that he was a highly gifted, highly sensitive portraitist.

The faces are rendered with such care and specificity, one can hardly say he was a cartoonist. His use of color, too, is especially delightful. Made famous by his exaggerated and dramatic use of reds and greens, look closely at the detail above to see where he uses blues, reds, yellows, and green. He uses them sparingly, but does not blend in the colors enough to sacrifice their true hue. This painting is truly a feast for the eyes.

Still Lifes and a Sculpture

The themes of the following galleries are much easier to see than the first. The second gallery is quite simple: still lifes. The only sculpture in the entire exhibition—Diana and a hound—also inhabits this room, but the paintings are all of still lifes so I expect they simply had to put the sculpture somewhere. Diana’s eye line and gesture point to the sculpture halls, so the sculpture may also function as a lead to other exhibitions within the National Gallery.

The names within this room are no less famous than the preceding gallery: Cezanne, Fantin-Latour, Braque, Matisse, and Monet. I admit I have little interest in still lifes, but the Matisse in this gallery is simply astounding.

Matisse’s love affair with color was a passionate embrace that reached deep down into his soul and consumed the source of his being. Sounds dramatic? Sure, but how can you deny it when you view this painting, or any other by the same artist? This painting exemplifies that love, but does not stop there. If we can tear our eyes from that dazzling red spot on the yellow fruit in the forefront and manage to drag our eyes up past the emerald lime, we can see the complexity of this composition. Matisse has created an intense push-pull between background and foreground. The foreground suggests depth, light, shadow, a 3D space, but the background seems to exist separately from it. The background is flat, but layered. Brown stalklike ribbons seem to stand in front of the blue flowery backdrop, creating depth but only in one direction, as if the background was coming up to the viewer’s face like a wall would. The background leaves no room for the space of the table, which intersects it in the center of the composition. No shadows suggest a curve or bend in the blue wall, so the space itself resists the illusion Matisse has created with the depth of the pink tablecloth, the shadowy fruits, and the forgotten pitcher that blends into the bold blue backdrop. Unfortunately, few of the still lifes in this exhibition (or in this museum…) excite me the way that this painting does.

Urban and Rural Landscapes

The third gallery is fairly straightforward in theme—Urban and Rural Landscapes—but is overwhelmed by one artist: Monet. The room is not large, yet it contains over four Monets. I am not denying that Monet was and remains one of the greatest artists of his age, I am simply acknowledging the imbalance of this gallery. And I have to admit, Monet offers few surprises and, although I can appreciate his innovation, his paintings bore me in most cases. That said, Chester Dale’s possession of two exercises with light on Rouen Cathedral, one of his most famous painting series, is impressive.

Among the Monets, a somber Van Gogh hangs. A bit tame for a Van Gogh considering his usual explosion of color, this painting offers a delicate and subtle palette of earth tones. I particularly appreciate the wonderful blue grays that suggest the shadows of the trees, and the goldenrod yellow that lines the horizon. The dusty rose streaks in the sky offer a bit of warmth among the cool tones of leaves, tree trunks, and grass.

My delight in this room came from a painting by a (very) slightly lesser known artist: George Bellows.

The high contrast attracted my eye first, but it was the beautiful prism of color that held me captive. To be honest, when I first looked at this work, I had no idea what was going on, and even now, after some hours of looking, I still am not positive I know. But that doesn’t matter. The brush strokes, the impasto, the application of paint in thick swipes in certain areas and thin sketches in others: these all make this painting a stunning example of American art. Bellows gives the viewer a place to stand, under the bridge in the cool shade, to look out at the activity while staying distinctly apart from it. The shade frames the piece while adding an extra level of depth and interest to it. Please see the detail below. I hope you can see the breadth and variety of his painterly style.

Part One concludes here. Please check back tomorrow for Part Two of this exhibition report!

an introduction to this introduction

October 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Or, perhaps more accurate, an introduction to the author.

My life seems to revolve around the letter A. My name is Alexa. I was born in April. I am from Alabama. My boyfriend’s name is Alec. And my passion is Art. My initials even correspond to Art History. I studied the Visual Arts for five years before heading to a well-ranked Liberal Arts college. I majored in Art History, successfully completing and earning High Honors on my thesis during my senior year. This by no means makes me an expert on art, but I do feel that I have a foundation solid enough to intelligently discuss works of art, artists, and exhibitions within the public realm of this blog.

Following my graduation, I was faced with deciding what to do during my year off from school. I felt I had exhausted my art resources in Alabama, so my thoughts turned to new cities with new museums. With California being too far away and NYC being… too NYC, my eye fell on our nation’s capitol. Abundant in art museums, galleries, studio coops, and thriving art communities, DC was the perfect place to spend a year wandering around seeing what there is to see. I have been here four months now and was inspired by a friend (whose blog on art in Paris can be found here: to start a critical blog focusing on the art world of Washington, DC. I intend to retrace my steps through the exhibitions I have already during my time here, and I will make posts about new exhibitions, gallery openings, and artist talks as they happen. I blog in the hopes that my critical eye and critical writing skills will stay sharp during my brief vacation from the brilliant world of academia.

So, here we go!


Where Am I?

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