Here are a few representative comments gleaned from shameless eavesdropping on conversations overheard while visiting the new exhibition, “Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France,” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond: “This is a treat!” “I love this layout—you never know what you’ll find around the next corner.” “We definitely need to visit France again.”
Featuring more than 100 works by American artists who lived, traveled, and worked in France between the mid-19th century and the end of World War I, the show was previously at the Denver Art Museum before its visit to the Old Dominion. While this show doesn’t break significant new ground, it does offer us the opportunity to consider what makes an art exhibition in 2022 not only enjoyable but memorable, particularly at a time some larger institutions have become too interested in dour dogmatism.
The exhibition covers a range of American art movements, from Academic Realism by painters such as Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) all the way to the “Philadelphia Five,” “The Eight,” “The Ten,” and the Ashcan School. It also includes those who don’t quite fit into any specific category, such as Edward Hopper (1882-1967). In terms of sheer volume, however, this is predominantly an American Impressionist show.
While Impressionist paintings are often very pleasant to look at, it must be said that Impressionism rarely offers much depth. Observing people sitting in the sun doing nothing of importance has a limited appeal, unless you’re Malcolm Lowry or Thomas Mann. Yet while for the most part we’re not talking about paintings with the visceral impact of a Goya or an O’Keeffe, notable works in this exhibition do demonstrate great visual power.
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s (1857-1937) magnificent “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1896), for example, demonstrates that not all late 19th-century art is of the pretty postcard variety. It was a joy to finally see this haunting piece in person.
While it recalls the work of 17th-century painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Diego Velázquez, the composition with its cutting diagonal and strong but asymmetrical vertical elements is far more modern in tone, almost cinematic. This picture was so highly esteemed when shown at the Paris Salon of 1897 that it was purchased for the French nation, and it normally resides at the Musée d’Orsay.
This was no small achievement for any American artist of the day, but was of even greater significance because the artist was an African American. He had to spend most of his working life exhibiting in Paris, due to racism and prejudice here at home.
Unfamiliar works by old friends are a pleasant surprise in the show, such as the wonderfully brooding “The Gargoyles of Notre Dame” (1867) by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), and the languid yet dazzling tonal symphony of “Lady in Gold” (c. 1912) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). Richard Emile Miller (1875-1943) in “Afternoon Tea” (1910) turns a giant Japanese parasol into a glowing mandorla, while Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) depicts “A Hillside, Giverny” (1887) as a pastel patchwork being traversed by a tiny figure carrying what looks like a butterfly net.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, it includes a number of paintings by both James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), although there aren’t any hugely significant works by the former to speak of here. There are far more pieces by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) than by Whistler. Of course, since the genius of Sargent almost inevitably outshines that of every other American painter, I have no complaints.
Yet apart from a handful of seascapes, including one large work, “The Coast of Brittany (Alone with the Tide)”(1861), Whistler’s influence is more alluded to in the exhibition than shown. Still, his ideas about “art for art’s sake” that led to Aestheticism and other developments are certainly both explained and in evidence.
Nevertheless, given her long association with France and her own genius, Cassatt rightly gets the lioness’ share of the spotlight. While best known for her images of mothers with children, of which there are many in the exhibition, in paintings such as “Profile Portrait of Lydia Cassatt” (1880) and “The Visitor” (c. 1881), Cassatt’s treatment of fabrics is truly mesmerizing. She achieves many of the same optical effects as did the Fauvists, but a generation earlier, and as an American woman working in a Frenchman’s milieu.
The Cassatts in this show give us a good jumping-off point to consider what makes an exhibition such as this succeed. One large gallery of Cassatt’s work is painted a blush pink, complimenting the rosy cheeks of the women and children depicted in her pictures.
In the very next gallery, which is more intimately scaled, the exhibition designers painted the walls a shade of green that was particularly recommended for the display of art by Cassatt’s frenemy Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Cornice, wall, and wainscotting moldings have been installed and painted white, while white sconces with pairs of flicking candles give the impression that one has passed through a 21st-century art gallery into the late 19th-century drawing room of an American art collector.
Of course, one can hold a tastefully designed retrospective of an artist’s oeuvre in a magnificent setting, but if the objects themselves are boring, forgettable, or poorly executed, it’s like serving a microwaved pizza on a Sèvres platter. Conversely, a collection of magnificent objects can often overcome the shortcomings of a boring, forgettable, or poorly executed exhibition space, which is often the case with temporary installations housed in white cube settings.
So why is it that the last three shows I’ve reviewed at the VMFA have been so enjoyable, particularly compared to shows I’ve seen recently at some significantly larger institutions? Some of those have been so bad that I couldn’t even bring myself to review them.
For one thing, although a Minimalist approach has its uses, it shouldn’t be the sine qua non of engaging with works of art, particularly those created a century ago or more. Placing something in isolation in a plain, white gallery space and spotlighting it as if to say, “Behold: ART” seems almost theocratic, and not in a good way.
Such an installation always reminds me of the “Designing Women” episode where Julia Sugarbaker attends an exhibition and accidentally leaves her purse on a plinth. She then finds that some of the other patrons have mistaken it for contemporary art, and have begun bidding ridiculous sums to obtain it.
Instead, what the VMFA does extremely well in shows of this scale is not to seek to create a quasi-religious experience for the unchurched, but to take patrons of all kinds on a shared journey that complements and enhances the art. In this latest exhibition, as was with the VMFA’s absolutely brilliant show on Man Ray last fall, or that on Edward Hopper from 2019, the museum doesn’t simply put a group of dead things on display in a sterile environment as if we were attending an anatomy lesson in a morgue.
Rather, the use of elements such as wall colors that shift from room to room, blown-up historic photographs that are more easily seen, representative music and sound, and examples of period filmmaking provide a richer experience as we travel through the interconnected galleries. This brings back a bit of life to the now-vanished world these artists inhabited.
Thus, one room in this exhibition recreates the feel of one of the official Paris Salon shows of the 19th century, where Tanner and others would have either exhibited or visited to see works by their contemporaries. We enter through a doorway framed by floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains.
Instead of placards, each painting in this gallery is accompanied by a number painted on the wall. These numbers correspond to descriptions in a mockup of the kind of brochure that a visitor to the Salon would have received. It allows the viewer to judge a work on its own merits, rather than being distracted by the name of the artist or the subject, while still having that information on hand if wanted.
In another part of the show, the choice to place Sargent’s “The Sketchers” (1913) at the end of a long, narrow hallway sandwiched between two larger galleries creates a destination, instead of being an afterthought for an inconvenient space. Natural curiosity always draws us toward an attractive object located at a distance so we can examine it up close, and the museum recognizes that human instinct.
Yet the VMFA doesn’t stop there: the space is lined with festoons of wisteria hanging from the ceiling, making it seem as though we are walking through an arbor to reach the painting. Recordings of birdsong from concealed speakers in the ceiling accompany our progress.
Perhaps a criticism to be leveled here would be, “This all sounds very kitsch,” and perhaps from a misanthropic point of view, it is. Yet our public institutions are not intended to be the exclusive purview of those possessing what currently passes for taste among so-called elites.
Those of us who live in a non-rarified world, where family trips to the seashore, children’s birthday parties, and prayer before meals are far more important than “ART” writ large, have just as much right to attend an exhibition to learn, experience, and enjoy being up close and personal with great works of art. Kudos are therefore due to the VMFA yet again for presenting a welcoming version of what an art exhibition can be.
“Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France” is at the VMFA in Richmond now through July 31. A beautifully illustrated and very readable catalog of the show is available, covering topics such as how the academic tradition worked in France and why Americans were drawn to it, how American women made names for themselves as artists in France, and other related subjects. For more information, please visit here.