Monday, March 4, 2013

A Look At The Wheelock Whitney Collection & A Gallery Talk At The Met.

I recently decided to go to one of the Metropolitan Museum's Gallery Talks.  Hey, they're free!  I don't have much money so I try to avail myself of any free cultural offerings I can.  This particular talk concerned the exhibition The Path of Nature:  French Painting from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785-1850.  (Although the show has genre and history paintings and portraits too, its special feature is plein air studies.)  I was impressed, our Gallery Talker, Elizabeth Perkins was very organized and informative.  The exhibition is of the Picturesque movement in painting, an era of art history that I am woefully under informed about, so I found the talk helpful:  It focused on the landscapes in the collection (particularly, the plein air ones).

What is the Picturesque, you might ask?  It is part of the Romantic movement that emerged toward the end of the 18th century.  The Romantic sensibility was a rejection of the Baroque as typified by painters such as Poussin, who believed that a painting should appeal to reason , not the senses.  The Romantic, instead, favored a more intuitive approach to experience.  And the Picturesque is meant to be a median marrying the opposed Romantic ideals of the Beautiful and Sublime, which were described by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics as respectively,  appealing to human desire and to an instinct for self-preservation:  In short, the Romantic movement was meant to speak directly to the emotions, not the intellect.  And the Romantics used depictions of nature as a means to project internal feelings, giving it a dramatic quality. (Okay!  Okay!  So I blew the dust off some old textbooks and looked a few things up too.)
Cloud Study (Distant Storm), Simon Denis, ca.1786-1806.

The above painting, Cloud Study (Distant Storm), is an obvious example of using nature to suggest a state of mind.  The use of  meteorological phenomena as a pictorial metaphor for human strife or emotional turbulence is something of a tired cliche.  Yet the elemental composition , with only a thin strip of dark green at the bottom to suggest the landscape and the massing of the clouds into big shapes, gives the painting an austere beauty that feels in tune with modern and  contemporary sensibilities, too.

With the exception of Camille Corot, whose late landscapes I've always been fond of, I didn't think I cared much for Romantic art.  This show changed my mind though----at least in regard to landscapes; I still don't like Romantic genre or history paintings:  The figures depicted in them are drawn mainly from classical mythology (although brigands were, apparently popular, at least with the Picturesque artists).  These figures all seem ridiculously emotive----histrionic even.  Except for the afore mentioned Corot, I had never heard of any of the painters featured in this show either, which made it a twofold revelation to me.

I enjoy painting en plein air and so I know what a challenge it is to capture a scene as seen at a particular time of day; so, I am particularly impressed with the show's plein air studies.  One thing they all have in common is a strong sense of light and shadow; so, you can really tell what time of day they were painted:  Many were done late afternoon/early evening----a time of day when shadows tend to be most pronounced and light often has a reddish or pinkish tinge.   The two paintings below are wonderful examples.
View of the Villa Torlonia, Friscati, at Dusk, Paul Flandrin,
ca. 1834-38.
Mountainous Landscape at Tivoli, Simon Denis, ca. 1786-97.

Since the paintings were done on site, they were executed fairly quickly and don't have the amount of detail a studio one might.  Both of which gives these paintings a comparatively simple and reductionist feel that is more likely to appeal to current sensibilities than their studio counterparts would.  They also avoid the hokey mythological narratives that mar many a studio painting of the era.  This is not to suggest that the Picturesque painters didn't include classical (mythical) elements in their plein air artwork, they did:  You probably noticed the lone traveller in Flandrin's painting; perhaps you also noticed it was clad in classical garb.  However, the figures in these paintings feel more like organic parts of the landscape than the more elaborately detailed ones in studio paintings of the era----they are certainly less obtrusive!  The narrative elements in the plein air pieces are, also more subtle, by and large.  The painting below is an example, the title is evocative:  It implies something dark and enigmatic, but that is all.
Edge of a Wood, Theodore Caruelle d'Aligny, ca.1850.

In addition to the sensational landscapes there are some really special interiors as well.  I particularly liked Granet's (below):
Monks in the Cloister of the Church of Geru e Maria, Rome,
Francois-Marius Granet, 1808.

I love the repeating arches they create a dramatically cavernous interior.  Perhaps not coincidently, "Monks in the Cloister" makes as much use of natural light and cast shadows as any of the landscapes on view:  The Picturesque artists' concern with accurately depicting light and shadow is as evident here as in those works.  Also, as in many of the plein air studies, Granet's figures seem like organic parts of a whole rather than the elaborately staged characters featured in many a studio painting of the era.

In order to make some points about the differences between the studio and plein air paintings, our talker, Ms. Perkins, led us to an elaborate Corot in the Lehman Collection, two rooms away.  This particular Corot has a ridiculously contrived mythological scene, which I didn't like at all.  However, there are some wonderful landscapes on the adjacent wall that are well worth a look.  My two favorites were by Barbizon painter Theodore Rousseau.  This might seem a bit off the topic of the Picturesque since the Barbizon school represented a movement away from Romanticism, towards Realism.  However, certain elements of the Picturesque plein air studies, such as the attention paid to capturing natural light as seen at a specific time of day and the loose brushwork, have a sensibility that is more in tune with the Barbizon school than with Corot's early studio work.  I guess that shows good paintings, even of different eras and of diverging philosophical outlooks, are likely to have more in common than not.
The Pool (Memory of the Forest of Chambord), Theodore
Rousseau, 1839.
As an occasional landscape painter, I have thought about what any particular landscape might convey; or, what sort of statement one might want to make, using landscape as metaphor.  So, I'm always interested in looking at landscapes of any era that try to make a broader statement, whether social, metaphysical or just personal.  Don't get me wrong though, I am not advocating painting in a 19th century mode:  I strongly believe that an artist must reflect their own time in their art!

The show is up until April 21, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY.

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