Sunday, October 8, 2017

Renoir and Friends at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Renoir and Friends: Luncheon of the Boating Party

Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

October 7, 2017 to January 7, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Impressionism derived a great deal of inspiration from Charles Baudelaire’s ideal of the "Heroism of Modern Life.”  In his review of the Salon of 1846, Baudelaire declared that "our age," the nineteenth century, "is no less rich than ancient times in sublime themes." Baudelaire went on to  assert "that since every age and every people have their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours."

The heroes and heroines who created these new forms of beauty were men like Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), his friend and fellow painter, Gustave Caillebotte, actresses Ellen Andrée and Jeanne Samary, journalist Adrien Maggiolo and the top-hatted patron of the arts, Charles Ephrussi. 

Portrayed in a legendary painting by Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, these kindred souls are re-united in an outstanding exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

Renoir and Friends at the Phillips displays over forty Impressionist paintings, a rare bronze sculpture by Renoir and vintage photos from the late 1870's and 1880's. These works are grouped around Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party to document a key moment in the story of Impressionism.

"Heroism" is not too strong a word for the cultural achievements of Renoir and his talented friends. And like Hercules, these heroes of "everyday life" had occasionally to rest from their labors. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail), 1880–81.

When they took a break, the Impressionists and their colleagues went to the Maisson Fournaise. This suburban restaurant became a legendary "hangout" like the Café Guerbois, in the heart of Paris, had been during the early days of  Impressionism.

The Maisson Fournaise was located in Chatou, about fourteen kilometers to the west of Paris. The restaurant overlooked the River Seine. For rowing and sailing enthusiasts like Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), it was the perfect spot to dock the boat for lunch, a round of drinks and the latest gossip. 

Gustave Caillebotte, A Man Docking His Skiff, 1878

Renoir favored the Maisson Fournaise, too, so much so that he painted the convivial meals he enjoyed there with his friends. His picture, Luncheon of the Boating Party, is among  the greatest of all Impressionist works of art.

Painted over an extended period of time, 1880 to 1881, Luncheon is not an "all in one-sitting" Impressionist work. It is a masterpiece in the Old Master sense, recalling art by Rubens and Watteau. It is a labor of love, created at the high point of the Impressionist movement, which in five years would cease to be a united front as the member artists went their separate ways.

Luncheon of the Boating Party was recognized as a masterpiece right from the start. Its first owner was Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), the principal art dealer for the Impressionists. It was only sold after Durand-Ruel's death. Luncheon entered the collection of Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), the art enthusiast who opened America's first museum of modern art, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81

Phillips first saw Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1911 in Durand-Ruel's gallery. He was so moved that he wrote an essay praising the way that Renoir had conveyed "life's vivacity" in this memorable painting. When the opportunity appeared to purchase Renoir's magnum opus, Phillips paid Durand-Ruel's heirs the astronomical sum of $125,000. 

That was in 1923. Eighteen months earlier, in 1921, Duncan Phillips had opened a small museum at his home, in Washington D.C. Phillips' museum was created to honor his beloved father and brother who had died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.

Phillips' museum was a "heroic" endeavor worthy of Baudelaire's theme. Phillips aimed to create a collection representing the best in modern art. Of the 237 paintings at the museum's founding, 87 were works by masters of American impressionism, including Childe Hassam, John Henry Twatchman and Julian Alden Weir. 

Acquiring Luncheon of the Boating Party was quite a coup by Phillips, enabling art lovers in the U.S. to contrast the works of American Impressionism with one of the signature paintings of the great Renoir.

For all his enthusiasm for Luncheon of the Boating Party, Duncan Phillips did not amass a collection favoring Impressionism, as did his rival, Dr. Albert Barnes. Phillips, in fact, ceased purchasing Impressionist works, except occasionally. After he bought Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1923. Phillips emphasized works by contemporary artists, especially Americans like Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Renoir and Friends at the Phillips is thus a perfect opportunity to investigate the birth of Impressionism in contrast with the subsequent development of Modernism. Almost all of the works in the exhibit (other than Luncheon) come from other museums, including the Musée d'Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago, and private collections. One has only to move to nearby galleries at the Phillips to trace the cultural impact of Impressionism.

 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Seine at Argenteuil, 1874

The Renoir and Friends exhibition is arranged with displays highlighting life and leisure along the Seine river. The Impressionists had long favored France's great river in their works. Monet along with Renoir had painted many scenes at Argenteuil early in the 1870's. Like Chatou, Argenteuil was a short train ride from Paris. Active, hardworking people from Paris came for a day in the country, through there are plenty of signs of industrialism and urban sprawl in the paintings of the Impressionists.

Other galleries in the exhibit are devoted to the women and the men we see relaxing in Luncheon of the Boating Party. Some of the greatest contemporary actresses of the period are depicted in Luncheon. These actresses are familiar faces as they often modeled for their painter friends. Ellen Andrée, who is draining a glass of wine in Luncheon, was the downcast protagonist in L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas. She certainly seems to be enjoying herself more in Renoir's painting.

I was especially pleased to see Renoir's A Girl with a Fan from the Clark Art Institute in  Williamstown, Massachusetts. I stumbled on the Clark many years ago during a New England vacation. A Girl with a Fan lodged in my memory with its blending of Impressionist technique and Old Mastery sensibility. Seeing this splendid work of art after all these years was like meeting an old friend.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), A Girl with a Fan by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1879-1880 

A Girl with a Fan is likely an idealized portrait of Jeanne Samary (1857-1890), one of the leading players of the Comédie-Française. The exhibit displays several photos of Jeanne Samary, who had a much fuller face than the young woman depicted in the painting. In one of the photos, the actress looks at the viewer with a big, friendly grin quite different from the demure smile of A Girl with a Fan.

In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Jeanne Samary is believed to be the woman holding her ears. Around the time that Renoir was painting Luncheon, Samary's name was frequently mentioned in the tattle columns of Paris newspapers. Her plans to marry the wealthy aristocrat, Paul Legard, had aroused the bitter opposition of his parents, The hands over her ears likely denote Samary's dismay about being the "talk of the town."

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail), 1880–81

Frequent use of "believed to be" or "likely" may lead to the conclusion that sloppy guesswork was involved in trying to establish the respective identities of the "Boating Party." Instead, an incredible amount of scholarship, beginning with the efforts of the German art historian, Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935), has been devoted to the study of Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Placement Chart for Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party

An elaborate chart of Luncheon is on view in the exhibition. Each of the identities or presumed identities of the protagonists is marked by number. The seated male character (number 8 on the right) looking out toward the river is certainly Gustave Caillebotte, yearning to get back to his boat. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail), 1880–81

The young woman (number 2) playing with the little dog is Renoir's girl friend and soon-to-be wife, Aline Charigot. Just twenty years old in 1879, Charigot was a seamstress and thus came from a working-class background like Renoir. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Portrait of Madame Renoir by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c.1885

Once again, this is a somewhat idealized likeness. The wonderful portrait from the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection, painted around 1885, is much more accurate. The sitter was Madame Renoir by then and Renoir was clearly in love with the "unidealized" woman he married.

Why did Renoir include so many "somewhat idealized" portraits in Luncheon of the Boating Party? Renoir was the greatest portrait painter among the Impressionists. It was not for lack of talent, but rather, I think, because he was aiming to depict a "universal" moment, a meeting of minds, hearts and souls that would stand the test of time.

Renoir certainly devoted a great deal of effort to achieve this goal. The final gallery of the exhibit analyses the careful configuration of the protagonists which Renoir devoted to Luncheon of the Boating Party

Detail comparison of Luncheon of the Boating Party, infrared photo at right.

An infrared photo of Luncheon, shows that Renoir changed the angle of the head of Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), wearing a top hat in the background. At first, Renoir had Ephrussi looking toward the river, as he did with Caillebotte. But then he shifted Ephrussi's gaze toward his companion, believed to be Jules Laforgue. Ephrussi was the editor of the influential Gazette des Beaux-Arts and Laforgue was his personal secretary. Business, as well as pleasure, was the subject of conversation at the Maisson Fournaise.

Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party recorded a special moment in French history as well as representing universal human qualities and aspirations. When displayed at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, Renoir's painting was the hit of the exhibit.  

The 1880's, however, were a tense period in French history. The decade was marked by bank failures, the Boulanger Affair which nearly toppled the Third Republic, the rise of anti-Semitism soon to ignite the Dreyfus Affair. Renoir, by most accounts a splendid man, succumbed to anti-Jewish feeling and turned on Charles Ephrussi, who came from a distinguished Jewish banking family.

Happiness, alas, never lasts for long. Perhaps that is why Luncheon of the Boating Party strikes such a chord with so many people. 

What we see happening at the Maisson Fournaise in 1879 is a moment in Paradise Lost. Brief, transitory, heart-warming and heart-breaking. Such moments are short-lived, except in our memories and in the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923

Gustave Caillebotte, A Man Docking His Skiff, 1878. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Photo: Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Seine at Argenteuil,1874. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 25 3/4 in. Portland Art Museum, Oregon, Bequest of Winslow B. Ayer

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), A Girl with a Fan by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Oil on canvas, 65,4 x 54 cm c. 1879- 1880, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Placement Chart for Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, exhibited at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Portrait of Madam Renoir by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Oil on canvas, Framed: 36 × 30 1/2 × 5 inches (91.4 × 77.5 × 12.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, W1957-1-1, Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1957

Detail comparison of Luncheon of the Boating Party, exhibited at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: Toys R Art

Toys R Art

Some Thoughts on the Role of Toys in the Art World

Text by Ed Voves  

Photo Essay by Anne Lloyd

Sometimes a visit to the art museum presents a difficult choice. Should I go see the exhibit or check out the gift shop first. The temptation to follow the latter course is often irresistible.

The recent Wild: Michael Nichols exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a case in point. The inventory of the gift shop reflected Nichols' status as one of the world's greatest nature photographers.  A vast herd of animal-themed toys thronged the shelves and display racks. Floor to ceiling, lions, tigers, bears and a stray elephant or two were everywhere. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Philadelphia Museum shop for Wild: Michael Nichols 

These Wild toys reinforced a growing interest in toys since I reviewed the Embracing the Contemporary exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibition of modern art, collected by Keith and Katherine Sachs, included a tiny wooden toy box filled with miniature toys. This small wonder was crafted by Charles LeDray in 2005-06. I had a much bigger version of such a toy box as a child, long gone - but not forgotten.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2016), Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray

In my 2016 review of Embracing the Contemporary, I wrote:

Looking at LeDray's wondrous work of art, I was stuck by the thought that we begin to collect memories as children and continue to do so throughout our lives. This in turn leads to a point when we are moved to share our emotional riches with others.

Lately, my wife Anne has been going on photo "safaris," chiefly of the many remarkable gardens of our Philadelphia neighborhood. Anne stopped in to the local Salvation Army store during one of her expeditions. A creative moment, relating to my toy box meditations, ensued.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA

When you go into the Salvation Army store, you are confronted by row upon row of cleaned, if slightly time-worn, clothing. On top of some of the metal shelves are trays of cast-off stuffed animals. Once these were treasured companions of a little Jane or Johnny. Kids grow-up and outgrow their playthings. Computer games take the place of plush animals. Time marches on.

Anne started snapping photos and then began rearranging the stuffed animals into little "photo-op" scenes. Evidently, someone else had a similar idea earlier. Anne found a lion and a lamb sharing a shelf. With a little propping-up, predator and prey were reconciled and ready to pose again for a new incarnation of the Peaceable Kingdom.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Peaceable Kingdom at the Salvation Army Store

These discarded toys are especially affecting and poignant because they were once loved by children. Some resonance of this love clings to them still. I sensed that when I saw the first batch of photos that Anne took. When I went with Anne for a return visit, I was amazed to see the transformation for myself. 

Anne's careful groupings of these toys seemed to bring them to life. Something struck a chord or touched a nerve in me. Those inanimate objects really appeared to be awakening to the kind of life they once enjoyed in the company of young children. 

Toys play a really important part in children's lives. I'm not referring here to toys that have a clearly "educational" role - which most kids instinctively reject. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Monkey Friend at the Salvation Army Store

A smiling monkey doll, like this one, is more life affirming. It helps a young child adjust to the world, to identify, appreciate and respond to kindness and love in the immediate family circle. 

Then comes the next import step, to appreciate and love beyond the family unit.

The big, beaming smile that spreads across this monkey's silly mug also appears on the face of Frans Hals' Fisher Boy with a Basket. Why did the cash-strapped Hals paint a picture of an impoverished working-class kid with a toothy smile?  He cannot have made much money selling this or the other versions of street urchins that he did.

Frans Hals, Fisher Boy with Basket, ca. 1630

I believe that Frans Hals and his compatriots in Golden Age Holland could appreciate a smile on a poor boy's face because their society invested so much in the well-being of children.  This regard for others which Dutch children learned early in their lives was a social "glue" which helped the United Provinces survive repeated invasions and internal stresses that would have wrecked less well-adjusted societies during the 1600's.

Artists and writers have been imparting human attributes to animals since Aesop.That's certainly a comforting thought. Perhaps my reflections on stuffed animals and art are not quite so “off-beat” after all!

On second thought, the ridiculous elements in life need to be cherished in art along with the sublime. Take a look at these Salvation Army recruits and try and keep a straight face. The kooky clown in his fright wig and the teddy bear and panda posing for a selfie. Just fun! Purely, simply fun!

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017),  Candid Photography at the Salvation Army Store! 

I've come to believe that a totally serious approach to art isn't always necessary - or even wise all the time. Not that I'm in favor of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, either.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), "Photo-Op" at the Salvation Army Store

Here is a demonstration of what I mean. Anne arranged a troop of the Salvation Army critters for a group portrait. The cartoon expressions of these beasties range from befuddlement and alarm to kindly acceptance. It is truly a very funny tableau.

Where have we seen such a range of emotion in the art world?

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild, 1662

Rembrandt's Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild? Surely I jest! 

Yes, but Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild is based on an underlying strata of humor. According to the most accepted interpretation of Syndics, Rembrandt depicted these officials responding to a challenging question during a policy-making meeting. It records a rather uncomfortable moment.

Syndics is unquestionably a masterpiece. But it is also a warm, funny evocation of the human comedy. From the suspicion and startled dignity of several of the syndics to the bemused look of the secretary behind them, we glimpse faces of men who have let the mask of officialdom slip down. For once, we see them, not as a group of "stuffed shirts," but as decent, if fallible, mortals like ourselves.

I suspect that there is a cartoon character or two in all of us. We don't need to arrange stuffed animals and find parallels with masterpieces like Rembrandt's Syndics to put a smile on our faces. Sometimes, a great painting will produce that effect without the need for props.

Titian was not especially well known for his sense of humor. Yet, in his Supper at Emmaus, Titian included a confrontation between a snappy, combative little dog and a gray tabby cat, poking its head under the table cloth.

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus,  ca. 1530

The Supper at Emmaus is one of the key events of Christian history. Following Jesus' crucifixion, two disciples met a stranger on the road to the village of Emmaus, a day's journey from Jerusalem. This of course was Jesus, risen from the dead. The disciples only recognized him when he blessed the bread for dinner. The story appears in the Gospel of St. Luke.

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus (Detail)

Nowhere does St. Luke mention a dog and a cat at the table at Emmaus. Other artists, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, painted this scene without any animal intervention. Why did Titian do so?

The first owners of this painting were the Maffei family from Verona, rather than a Catholic religious order. Perhaps, Titian wanted to include a homey detail or to show that the trifling details of life do not stop even when the Divine Presence is being manifested. 

Whatever the case, Titian demonstrated that humor has a secure place in great art.

Anne and I spent a delightful half-hour arranging the Salvation Army animals for their "photo shoots."  One of the plush animals, a sweet, demure mouse, called to mind the subject of one of Renoir's greatest portraits. Renoir painted Adelphine Legrand in 1875, the year after the First Impressionist Salon and its dissappointing sales.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1875

Adelphine Legrand was eight years old when Renoir painted her. This sweet, demure girl was just at the point in her life when she would no longer be a child but rather be Mademoiselle Legrand.

Adelphine's dolls and toys, counterparts of this little mouse, would have had to be set on the shelf or given away. This is part of the price of growing up and I could not help but reflect that this particular toy mouse surely had been loved and cherished by a modern-day Adelphine only a short time ago.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Mouse Friend at the Salvation Army Store

Life passes swiftly. Pleasant interludes such as Anne and I spent at the Salvation Army store come to an end almost as soon as they begin. 

Yet occasions for humor, joy and inspiration should be cherished, however brief and wherever these take place. A museum gallery or an aisle in a Salvation Army store. You never know when or where an "art moment" may occur.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Rijksmuseum, the Louvre and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, via Creative Commons. Gallery and  Salvation Army Store images courtesy of Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Second-hand Toys at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA, September 2017.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017),  Museum shop for the Wild: Michael Nichols exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 2017.  
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray. Mixed-media object from the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA , September 2017.   
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Peaceable Kingdom at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA , September 2017.    
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Monkey Toy at the Salvation Army Store , Philadelphia PA, September 2017.                     
Frans Hals, (Dutch, 1581-1666) Fisher Boy with Basket, ca. 1630. Oil on canvas, 72 cm × 58 cm (28 in × 23 in). National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Purchased in 1881. NGI.193.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Second-hand Toys at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA . Three photos taken during September 2017.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) The Syndics of the Cloth Makers Guild, about 1662 Oil on canvas,191.5 x 279 cm. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (SK-C-6).
Titian (Italian, 1490–1576) The Supper at Emmaus,  ca. 1530. Oil on canvas. 169 cm (66.5 in). Width: 244 cm (96.1 in). Louvre, Paris. Inventory # 746.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1872, Oil on canvas, 32 x 23 1/2 inches, 81.3 x 59.7 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986, (1986-26-28)  Image: © The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Mouse Toy at the Salvation Army Store , Philadelphia PA, September 2017.                     

Thursday, September 14, 2017

French and British Drawing Exhibits - Morgan Library and Princeton University Art Museum

      Poussin, Claude & French Drawing in the Classical Age       

     Morgan Library and Museum
June 16 - October 15, 2017

Great British Drawings

Princeton University Art Museum
July 1 – September 17, 2017 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The English Channel is twenty miles wide at its narrowest point between Dover on the British shore and Cap Griz Nez in France. Two remarkable exhibitions of drawings, one at New York's Morgan Library and Museum and the other at the Princeton University Art Museum, show that the cultural gulf between the two nations has often been much wider.

Great British Drawings, a travelling exhibit drawn entirely from the outstanding collection of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, charts the course of British art from its post-Reformation awakening in the late 1600's to the mid-twentieth century. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Great British Drawings at Princeton University Art Museum

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age at the Morgan is more tightly focused, devoted exclusively to the seventeenth century. The Morgan exhibit is overwhelming composed of drawings from its own, seemingly inexhaustible, holdings, with a few loans from the Metropolitan Museum and several private collections.

These exhibits enable us to see the differing approaches to art which artists from France and Britain followed for much of the modern period. 

The seventeenth century for France was the "splendid century." French art during the 1600's followed the centralizing political agenda of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV. French painters, especially after the foundation of the Académie Royal in 1648, drew support and inspiration from the ideology of France as the "grand nation." 

The annual award of the Prix de Rome, inaugurated in 1663, enabled the lucky winner to study and work in Italy for several years at the expense of the King of France.The prestige of the award insured that the visual arts followed the prescribed religious and classical themes favored by the Royal authorities. Artists were expected to revolve like planets around the Sun King just as the fawning nobles did at the court of Versailles.

Despite occasional attempts to follow the French patronage model, British art was attuned to the fickle dictates of the market place. The "milords" of the eighteenth century, followed by factory owners in the 1800's, bought the kind of art they liked - pictures of themselves and their horses, especially - rather than what King George ordained.

The Morgan exhibit takes its title from from two of the  greatest French artists of all time and from the classical ideal that was the foundation of their work. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) both lived most of their adult lives in Italy. Poussin was ordered home to France by Cardinal Richelieu in 1640, but escaped back to Italy in 1642. Lorrain went to Italy as a pastry chef in the 1620's but found he was better at painting. He was not technically a French subject, which enabled him to avoid the suffocating embrace of the French monarchy.

Both Poussin and Lorrain were masterful draftsmen. Their drawings were clearly intended as the foundation for major oil paintings. To modern eyes, the classical-themed paintings by  Poussin and Lorrain can seem dated and unconvincing. Their drawings are another matter.

Nicholas Poussin, Holy Family on the Steps, 1646-48

Poussin's Holy Family on the Steps is a tour de force of integrating human figures in a believable setting. The scene is superbly accentuated with sharp contrasts of light and shadow. And the fact that facial features are not delineated lets the viewer "finish" the character details in his or her own mind. 

For this work, Poussin used pen and brown ink, with brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on paper. Lorrain often used the same technique with equal effectiveness.

J.M.W. Turner revered Claude Lorrain's oil paintings for their masterly handling of light. Yet, even a brief look at Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge (1645) and The Sermon on the Mount (1655) opens our eyes to the incredible skill with which the limited range of color is used in these sketches.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge

Less is more. What we see in these drawings is the flowering of organic forms over allegorical references. Nature transcends narrative.

We see that too in the psychological insights of the highest caliber in the portrait drawings on display at the Morgan. The artists of seventeenth century France followed in the footsteps of the Renaissance masters, Jean Clouet (c.1485/90–1540) and François Clouet (c.1515–1572). French portrait sketches from the 1600's clearly show a major advance in depicting both facial features and "interior lives" that rival the more famous Dutch achievements from that era.

Simon Vouet, Study of a Woman Seated on a Step..., ca.1630–35

A superb example of character "formation" is Simon Vouet's Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Vouet has depicted a human body in motion, a being whose inner self is stirring to life as well.  

Another masterful achievement is Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court. Created in 1628, during the reign of Louis XIII, this brilliant work is the introductory image for this review.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman, 1628

Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman immediately calls to mind Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. It is unlikely that the identity of this courtier will ever be revealed. But this stunning portrait probes the psyche of this individual with such amazing perception that we feel we know him for certain.

Great British Drawings begins with a portrait from roughly the same period as Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman. Samuel Cooper, famous for his "warts and all" portrait of Oliver Cromwell, sketched this amazing likeness with black chalk and a bit of white accent. In this case, we know the name of the sitter and his identity raises questions of why Cooper lavished so much skill on it.

Samuel Cooper, Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650

At first glance, Thomas Alcock looks like a "plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows." Such men were the field officers in Cromwell's Puritan army. Looks are deceiving.

In fact, Alcock was a henchman of the libertine Earl of Rochester, notorious for his sexual escapades during the reign of King Charles II. An inscription on the back of the drawing records that Alcock, aged eighteen, commissioned the "famous Mr. Cooper of Covent Garden" to draw his portrait.

Vanity of vanities ... plus a little expendable cash keeps the art market primed!

British art followed a gloriously eccentric and commercial course. Many of the influences which appealed to the French also influenced the British. Italy provided a magnetic appeal during the 1700's - when Britons could get there. 

The frequent wars with France, especially the long Napoleonic Wars, often prevented painters like Turner from travelling to Italy. Unable to sketch and paint Roman ruins or Renaissance churches, British artists depicted ruins on their native shore, usually castles. John Sell Cotman, in a bizarre choice, selected a dilapidated house waiting to be demolished.  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33

Turner, with an eye on sales chose the "dreaming spires" of Oxford. Watercolor "drawings" like Turner's 1832 view of Christ Church College, Oxford, served as templates for prints, hugely popular with the growing middle class.

British art during the 1700's and 1800's reacted against the marketplace as well as obeying the call of profit. The Ashmolean drawings on view at Princeton include a rural study by Thomas Gainsborough, created as an antidote to his disgust at painting society portraits. 

John Ruskin, Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, 1849 or 1869

Another watercolor, sharply in contrast to works with a commercial motivation, is John Ruskin's Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey. Ruskin painted this for the sheer love or art and to satisfy his insatiable quest for a close study of nature.

Ruskin, of course, inherited a large fortune from his indulgent father. But it would be wrong to belabor the issue of economics at the expense of Ruskin's empathy for his fellow human beings and for "truth to nature."

One of the great delights in wide-ranging exhibits like the Morgan and Princeton shows is the opportunity of discovering new artists. Great British Drawings includes a stunning work by an artist I had not heard of previously. Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was both an accomplished artist and an unusual personality. He was obsessed with spiritualism and "automatic" drawing. Spare's pastel depiction, A Dressing Station, 1919, is one of the most striking depictions of the tragic human coast of World War I ever created. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Austin Osman Spare's A Dressing Station,1919

This stunning work recalls John Singer Sargent's Gassed. Every detail is accurate, from the "thousand yard" stares of the wounded soldiers to their muddy boots. Yet, Spare, who did serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, never reached France until after the war, in 1919. A tremendous emotional leap was necessary for Spare to grasp the horrors of the Western Front and there is no doubt but that he did exactly that.

Great British Drawings ends on a somber note with David Bomberg's Evening in the City of London,1944, and John Piper's The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath,1982. In this work, Piper conflated the actual architecture of the ruined Scottish Church to achieve a ghostly presence of the entire structure and of its long history.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982

This postwar work is particularly unsettling. Piper had earlier traveled throughout Britain, recording bombed-out buildings. But this ruin is a long-standing one from Scotland's distant past. Or is it a vision of the future? Is this the fate of all human creation, the point where decay reaches a terminal state? 

If so, it needs to be remembered that new life and new social forms will arise to take the place of what has been lost. And with this will come the "moment" for the creation of great art, a renewed opportunity for artists of vision and merit to make their mark. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum and the Princeton University Art Museum and Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Daniel Dumonstier (French,1574–1646) Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628 Black, red, yellow, and white chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased as the gift of John M. Crawford, Jr.; 1956.9

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Exhibition banner for Great British Drawings, Summer 2017, at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Holy Family on the Steps, 1646–48. Pen and brown ink and wash, with gray wash, over black chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 71

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge, ca. 1645. Black chalk and graphite, with brush and brown wash, on paper tinted a pinkish brown. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 76

Simon Vouet (French, 1590–1649) Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Black and white chalk on light brown paper. The Morgan Library & Museum Bequest of Therese Kuhn Straus in memory of her husband, Herbert N. Straus; 1977.59

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628.

Samuel Cooper, English, (1608–1672), Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650. Black chalk heightened with white on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, (English, 1775–1851), Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite with scratching out, on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

John Ruskin, (English, 1819–1900), Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, May–June 1849, or 1 May 1869. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on pale grey wove paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Austin Osman Spare (English, 1886-1956) A Dressing Station, 1919. Pastel on Ingres paper. 52.1 x 39.5 cm Presented by Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell,  2004. WA 2004.110 © The Estate of Austin Osman Spare

John Piper (English, 1903-1992) The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982. Brush in Indian ink with watercolor, bodycolor and colored chalks on paper. 57.7 x 67.5 cm Signed: John Piper  Bequeathed by Robert and Rena Lewin, 2004. WA2006.21 © The Piper Estate / DA CS 2015

Monday, August 28, 2017

Wild: Michael Nichols at the Philadelphia Museum of Art & the National Geographic Museum


Wild: Michael Nichols 

Philadelphia Museum of Art, through September 17, 2017

National Geographic Museum, Washington D.C.
October 12, 2017 - January 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is a temptation to apply the words "last of" to the great photographer, Michael "Nick" Nichols. "The Last Nature Photographer." "The Last Explorer." Or something like that.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of Nichols' photos. Entitled Wild: Michael Nichols, the exhibit thoughtfully presents Nichols' incredible images in careful juxtaposition with works of art from the museum's collections.When Wild completes its run in Philadelphia in mid-September, it will head down to the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.

The effect of Nichols' photos and the brilliant work of the Philadelphia Museum of Art curators soon dispels impressions about the "last of the wild." Instead, what we see evoked on the exhibit walls is the resilience of nature, the enduring spirit of an organic world.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols
showing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985)

We see it on the gallery floor too. Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) is a deceptively simple sculpture. It represents the most perfect geometric shape, rendered with chipped, craggy bits of rock. A visually pleasing conceit on its own terms, Limestone Circle takes on a vastly more important meaning when you see it next to photos by Michael Nichols.

One of Nichols' pictures, an aerial view of cloud-dappled Lake Télé in the Republic of the Congo is a perfect match for comparison with Long's Limestone Circle. Lake Télé is ringed with forbidding jungle, still not fully explored to this day. The clear demarcation between land and water in the photo invites us to extend this distinction to our emotional response to this incredible image. The clear lake water evokes a sense of freedom and relative safety compared with the dangerous, trackless forests around it.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998

Lake Télé, however, is the reputed home of a Loch Ness-like monster, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Like Nessie, it hasn't been seen of late. Of course, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is just a myth but crocodiles grow plenty big in Central Africa too.

We are on a lot safer ground with Limestone Circle. Yet, where is the "wild" in nature? Outside the circle of stones or within? Has the civilized, post-industrial world reduced nature to National Parks and extremely remote sites such as Lake Télé? Or will nature reassert itself, with the "wild" springing to life like weeds pushing  through cracks in the sidewalk?

I suspect that the really wild aspects of nature lie within - ourselves.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols

While walking through the exhibit galleries, I saw a fellow art-lover looking at Nichols' photo of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. The primary colors in the spring come from microbes called thermophiles, which thrive in the scalding hot water. Nichols photographed the Grand Prismatic Spring  and its thermophiles, turning the spring into a huge eye, exploding with luminous color into its surroundings.

By contrast, Richard Long's Limestone Circle is a blank canvas, waiting for us to fill the empty space with the "wild" hues of our imaginations.

Michael Nichols certainly has a vivid imagination, balanced by a pragmatic outlook on life and art. My wife, Anne, and I were able to spend some time with him at the press preview of Wild. A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Nichols exudes a true "natural" character, able to adapt and flourish in any environment. He posed for Anne in front of one of his photos, fittingly, of Hildur, a Serengeti lion who has seen a lot of life.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols

Nichols, a veteran photojournalist for National Geographic, is a master of realist photography. He personifies the proud job title that I used to hear back in the days when I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Nichols is a real "lensman." 

That honorific means a lot of hard work and methodical planning. To get a shot of a Northern Spotted Owl swooping down through a Redwood Forest in Northern California involved staging an elaborate lure and split-second timing. The reward was an unforgettable image of a critically threatened species whose fate, due to habitat loss, has been the subject of controversy for nearly three decades.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild showing Michael Nichols' Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest

The Northern Spotted Owl is endangered because of the economic value of its forest home. Redwood trees, a prime candidate for the logger's saw, posed an even bigger challenge for Nichols' camera than the Northern Spotted Owl. To photograph two Redwoods for a five-page fold out for National Geographic, Nichols and a team of tree-climbing assistants spent weeks lowering cameras down the huge trees to create panoramic views of these towering giants. 

In an interview with Sid Rodriquez, Interactive Content Writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Nichols recorded the electric moment when the perfect moment for the perfect shots occurred:

On the thirteenth day, there was a moment where the sky got thin—we were doing these at dawn—and that’s what you’re looking for in the forest, where you still have some clouds to make the light soft. If it’s really cloudy, it’s just dead. It’s when—we call it cloudy bright—and the tree started glowing. I can’t see it, I’m looking through a computer on the ground, but the guys up in the tree are saying, “Nick, the tree, it’s glowing, it’s alive, we can feel it.” That’s when we made the set of pictures that became the composite we’re putting in the Great Stair Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia 

The composite that Nichols refers to is one of a pair of 60-foot copies of the Redwood photographs he took for the National Geographic. One is a winter-time study (2012) of a 3,200 year-old Giant Sequoia, the other a much younger Coastal Redwood, "only" 1,500 years of age, photographed in 2009. 

The 60-foot tapestry-like photos are suspended from the rafters of the Great Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Awesome" is perhaps the most over-used adjective in the English language (in polite society, that is) but for once it is an entirely accurate descriptor of Nichols' achievement.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood

If Nichols' Redwood photos testify to his patience and skill, there are others that testify to his courage and his strength of will. Nature really is "red in tooth and claw." The image of a tiger named Charger which Nichols took  in 1996 recalls Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" TV series back in the 1950's. Nichols used a camera trap to get this incredible shot. Lot's of adventure but, like "Wild Kingdom," the gazelle gets away - this time.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997

In other photos in Wild, we do see blood and gore. There's a wild-eyed lion named C-Boy chomping on a zebra, a chimp in the process of devouring a smaller monkey. We have to expect - and accept - that the working of the food cycle in nature is a messy process. All the same, Nichols must have nerves of steel and a cast-iron digestive system to be able to record such scenes.

Harder to stomach are Nichols' photos of animals abused by human beings. The frenzied chimpanzee chained in a squalid cage is a vastly more horrifying photo than C-Boy's lack of table manners. It took a great deal of moral courage, of professional focus tempered with fortitude, on Nichols' part, to take this picture.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1989

Ultimately, Wild is an exhibition about empathy. When one looks at the face of the Mandrill in the introductory image of this essay, the eyes that look back are very like a human's eyes. We sense a kinship with the Mandrill and the other wonderful animals depicted in Wild. Yet a gulf still separates us from them.

Will the empathy that we see displayed in Nichols' photos enable us to cross that divide? Will we every unchain the chimp in the cage and remove our shackles as well? If so, we will owe not a small debt of gratitude to Michael "Nick" Nichols.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.  Images courtesy of Michael Nichols and the National Geographic Society and  Anne Lloyd. Interview text courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Introductory Image:
Michael Nichols, Mandrill in a hunting Camp, Gabon, 2000, (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.  

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) Original in the Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood, California, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1889. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic