On ViewVirginia Museum Of Fine Arts
April 16–July 31, 2022
We are northerners, originally, but my mother and two of my three sisters now live within minutes of one another in a new housing development in suburban Richmond, built on farmland that was once Pamunkey and Chickahominy hunting grounds. On Memorial Day weekend, American flags were planted at the edge of every closely trimmed lawn. Near downtown is Monument Avenue, where the Confederate statues have been removed, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France arrived in April. Originating at the Denver Art Museum, it runs through the end of July. If nothing else, it would be a worthwhile accompaniment to the reading of any number of novels by Henry James (he is quoted on the walls of the exhibition) and our cultural heritage.
Whistler to Cassatt illustrates the story of the changes in American art that took place after the Civil War. Many artists turned away from the methodology of the Hudson River School, and it became the norm for literally hundreds of them to train in Paris, with its superior art academies and the Louvre’s masterworks available to study and copy; the entrance to the exhibition includes a wonderfully evocative photo mural of the Eiffel Tower under construction. It begins with paintings by American winners of prizes from the official Salon, including one by the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), the dominantly brown and yellow firelit figural group, The Resurrection of Lazarus, from 1896. A room full of sketches follows, showcasing academic studies from the model, plaster casts, and other required tests administered by the École des Beaux-Arts. Another wall mural enlarges a period photo of a group of laddish academy students mugging for the camera around a nude male model; the catalog states that there was “minimal instruction, often amid classroom antics.” There is a copy of an Ingres by James Whistler, the backside of a woman by Thomas Eakins and a view from Notre-Dame by Winslow Homer. The Eakins oil sketch possesses the only and merest squeak of sex among the works of the male American artists, their geographic displacement revealing an underlying Puritanism.
Further on there is another Tanner: a small, heavily painted, dusky blue monochrome, Christ and His Disciples on the Sea of Galilee (ca. 1910). The depicted boat that carries them has a scraped off bow, its red underpainting seeming to reflect a distant, offscreen sunset. It is one of the few surprises and best things in the show.
The works of Whistler, also chaste, include his painting The Coast of Brittany (Alone with the Tide) (1861), featuring a female figure in local black, brown, and white garb in semi-recline on the sand; its distant, muscular surf and trail of hatch-marked, stylized rocks across the middle ground might owe something to Japanese prints. It’s quietly riveting, a rare picture where landscape subliminally transmits its massiveness, kind of like the pictorial equivalent of Hemingway. Whistler is considered an aesthete, but as ephemeral and “poetic” as his works may be, they are often visceral and soulful. Maybe this is what Gwen John, whom I greatly admire, got from Whistler, who was one of her teachers.
In the catalog essay “Facture in Paris,” Timothy Standring describes the disintegration of the academic “licked, slick finish” of paintings’ “skin” and the arrival of au premier coup (at one touch), resulting in “vastly different surface finishes.” One of the great pluses of the show is the relative lack of glass covering the works, so that the various combinations of smears, scumbles, and dry drags of paint often learned en plein air can be closely examined.
The heart of the exhibition is no doubt the two rooms of paintings and pastels by Mary Cassatt (who, incidentally, was charged double what the men paid in order to study with Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose works were sought after by American collectors). The seemingly “unfinished,” stabbed and scraped, loosely brushed viridian, lime, dark ruby, and black marks of Cassatt’s portrait of a woman in profile by a window, The Visitor (ca. 1881), seemed to anticipate the stupendously variegated paint applications of Joan Mitchell, the later American in Paris, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which I visited on my way south. But where she was a semiotician of the gestural mark, the earlier Cassatt utilized the audaciously raw paint strokes she adapted from Edgar Degas to mark off a territory that was not friendly to probing male eyes. As the art historian Griselda Pollock observed, Cassatt left “little extraneous space to distract the viewer… [it does not] make them objects of a voyeuristic gaze.” Cassatt’s women and children press up against the frontal plane, nurturing one another and confronting yet ignoring the viewer. In the slightly later Baby in Dark Blue Suit, Looking Over his Mother’s Shoulder (ca. 1889), the lines defining their torsos whip around ferociously, then, when defining the baby suit, get loose and fluid, like de Kooning and, as Pollock suggests, with equal eroticism. In two works from 1893, The Family and Child Picking a Fruit, Cassatt’s previously open brushwork has been corralled into purposeful color, tonality, and description; the entire surface of both canvases is firmly attended to and concrete. These two adamantly painted images reminded me of another American painter who spent her life in Paris, Shirley Jaffe (her retrospective is currently on view at the Pompidou), who rejected expressionism to make work where every aspect was specific and defined, that there should be no mistake that she meant every inch of it.
The final rooms in Richmond are dedicated to American Impressionists such as William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam, codifying the Impressionist technique into a new academic style. The contrast with Cassatt is telling: it’s the difference between a charged surface and a busy one. These blanched landscapes and saccharine damsels have the American characteristic of cheerful oppressiveness. Well-cut lawns in the bright sunshine.