Final Chapter: The Chester Dale Collection
December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment
sincerest apologies for the long delay!
Let’s refresh: We’re walking through the second to last room of the Chester Dale Collection exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The room is one of the smaller galleries within the exhibition and contains paintings of women, a subcategory of the many themes within the collection. The above painting may be a surprise to some, since it can hardly be labeled as a “stereotypical” example of the artist’s infamous work. This is a Picasso, a portrait of the artist’s wife. The colors are muted and simplified, the composition is symmetrical, and the subject matter is unremarkable. Doesn’t quite scream “PICASSO,” does it? But that does not mean it is without merit. What most interests me in this painting is the contrast between flat, cartoony representation of the body and background and the sculptural representation of the face. The blue of the dress and brown of the chair seem like they were almost rubbed on, instead of pained on. The black outlines of the arms and hands flatten the image, but her face, oh that face, protrudes from the image in such a way that makes it seem like it has been carved out of plaster instead of painted. The dramatic lighting further emphasizes the contrast between the face and the rest of the painting, since it highlights the planes of the face while the lighting seems evenly diffused over the body. Upon closer inspection, the difference in paint application becomes even more clear.
As you can see, the impasto is quite thick on her forehead, the bridge of her nose, and her chin. Even her eyelids have thick, white swipes of paint across them, enhancing their roundness. The application of paint here seems oddly inconsistent, given the washes of color throughout the painting, adding to the strange contrast of lighting effects. The black outlines continue through the face, as they describe the body, but here they are even darker, bolder, and the artist has smudged the lines the slightest bit to create subtle shadows. It is relevant to note that this “portrait” is probably a study in painting and not a realistic representation of his wife.
Hanging opposite the Picasso, a stunning Fantin Latour stares out at the viewer. She, like Picasso’s wife, wears a fur around her neck, but the similarities end there. A golden light warms the creams and tans of the painting, but does little to filter the bright green gem in her ring. She is elegant, a commanding presence in the room, but still delicately pretty. I apologize for the grainy photo, since it distracts from the smoothness and detail of the work. The young woman has a slight mousy-ness to her appearance, with her ears poking out under her hat and a long nose ending at a small mouth, accentuated by the dark fur wrapped around her neck. The fur seems out of place, given the lightness of her dress and the patterns wrapping around her waist and arms. As a compositional element, though, it ensures the movement of the viewer’s eye and helps to keep the focus on her face.
Moving onto the next gallery, we see two Mary Cassatt paintings. These are, unfortunately, quite within Cassatt’s traditional themes, but they are a bit more interesting and impressive than the Cassatts in the previous gallery, which were such an eyesore I could not bring myself to mention them. The first is handled beautifully in style and color choice, but the
subject matter has little appeal to me. The double mirror effects are well-planned and well-rendered, reflecting the child’s face in the mother’s hand, and reflecting an outside view of their intimate interaction. Cassatt’s color theory is, in my opinion, rarely rivaled. The greens, pinks, and yellows all work together so seamlessly, a beautiful harmony of color reflecting the harmony of the mother and child before us. Although I have little interest in how the subject matter is presented, I encourage you to consider the implications of a young girl looking into a mirror, and the flower worn on her mother’s breast. In combination, these elements have volumes to say about a young girl growing up in the late nineteenth-century.
Next to the mother and child is another Cassatt, one with a slightly more dynamic color scheme of brown, purple, and white. The composition itself is slightly odd, since (and I can link you to a dissertation written on the subject of predictable symmetry in portraiture throughout art history) the majority of portraits have the face of the sitter just slightly off-center, often with an eye being the exact center of the painting. Kind of eery when you start really looking at portraits, because you start to see that eyeball square in the center of every painting. Of course, this particular Cassatt work may simply be a genre painting and not a portrait, which may excuse it for parting from the eery-eye composition (I apologize that I cannot remember the title of the painting and am unable to find it in my notes on the exhibition). In art school, we were trained that more powerful compositions could be created by manipulating the viewer’s gaze to follow the sitter’s gaze. The sitter’s gaze in the Cassatt painting is cut short since the girl’s face is so close to the edge of the painting on the right side. Had I painted it, I would have given the girl plenty of space between her face and the edge of the canvas, thereby providing lots of space for her eyes to create a path to be followed by the viewer throughout the painting. Here, though, her gaze is cut short, drawing the viewer’s attention to her long, red hair creating a strong vertical slice through the center of the composition. The paint is handled in broad, thick strokes unlike Cassatt’s softer, almost hazy pastel paintings. Instead of plump attractive (or forgettable) faces, this face is blunt if not ungainly, but there is something beautiful in the raw redness of her cheeks and the white flesh of her neck. It’s certainly a strange painting, not beautiful in the traditional sense yet still captivating, and its subject matter is intriguing, if you can get past the unbalanced composition.
Ah, Van Gogh. As I am sure you already know, I feel nothing short of adoration for his work, and this piece is an excellent example of why I love him. Three words: color, shape, texture. I will say no more, instead I will leave you to ponder those three words as you explore this fantastic work of art. I’m so astounded by the aesthetics of the painting, that I have never stopped to consider the subject matter. Another day, perhaps. For now, feast your eyes.
I will not dwell on the enormous Degas that greets all passers-by and patrons entering the exhibition, but I would like to point out one thing. The colors almost make it seem like the dancers are on fire, with the oranges and bright reds in their hair and costume, but also in the specific teal of the shadows.
The colors of the sunset in the distant background reflect the orange and teal of the dancers, and further the fire color scheme. It just seems strange to me, but maybe I’ve never seen dancers on fire before, certainly not at the hands of Degas.
I should really do an entry simply on the variety of applications of paint in this exhibition. The fiery Degas’ neighbor is an excellent example of an alternative way to paint, one that has more visual grit (in contrast to Degas’ smooth painting) and suggests a flickering of light instead of a direct light source.
The richness and depth of the color is achieved by layering paint but also by simply putting paint on the canvas (as a certain oil painting teacher used to scream). The flickering quality of the lighting is achieved in the splotches of lights and darks applied broadly, but never blended together or smoothed out. Modigliani’s gypsy woman sits with a certain elegance, enhanced by the elongation of her neck and face. The composition is carefully controlled in a symmetrical design, but the artist created a graceful “swish swish” movement down the center, from the woman’s face to the child in her arms, with the curve of the single escaping strand of hair and the S curve of her scarf, which both mimics and counters the curve of the strand. I especially love the relationship between the deep orange and red tones of her skin and the gray background. One would think that a figure so colorful would make the background look washed out and pale, but the grays in this painting are just as rich and deep. They are truly beautiful to behold.
The final work of the exhibition is by far my favorite painting– an unusual Matisse. Again it is refreshing to see works from the Greats that are a break from what they are best known for, like happening upon a mariachi song by the Beatles and finding that you like it better than their pop rock ballads.
It’s kind of an odd little painting, with an unidentifiable potentially-feathery gray mass on top of her head and strange ribbony loops of black falling down around her ears. Her white frock all but disappears into the unexpectedly orange background (I mean, really, with all that grey, you would think a blue background would be the natural choice) and her hair cascades in a richly colored yet undefined mass. To be honest, the piece doesn’t even look finished. But, to be honest, that’s why I love it. I absolutely adore unfinished works because you can see the painter’s process more clearly than in the finished piece, see what most interested them and what challenged them. Sometimes you can even see them working and reworking the composition. I love the curve of her neck, clearly defined by the dark hair falling behind it. The face, of course, is what makes this painting so delightful. The delicacy in which the features were handled, the gentle shadow over the round of her chin and the shape of her lips, eyes, and nose, are beautiful, simple yet specific.