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!

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