Sunday, August 16, 2015

Day 4: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two special offerings in American art attracted us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year. One was a new installation of a mural series by Thomas Hart Benton; the other was a huge exhibit of John Singer Sargent.

America Today by Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975

Although Captain Dan and I had traveled widely to see murals by Thomas Hart Benton, he discovered several years ago that there was one important set that we had not seen. Called America Today, it was originally commissioned for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research, but in 1982 it was sold to AXA financial, then called Equitable Life. After extensive cleaning and restoration, it was moved to the company's corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue, where it adorned the foyer. We visited the mural on two separate trips to New York, but photography was not allowed; moreover, the panels were placed too high for photos anyway. Therefore we were delighted when AXA donated the mural to the Met. After a special exhibit to introduce the new acquisition, the museum placed the group of ten panels in a room with the same dimensions as the original boardroom, and at eye level. The result is a splendid panorama of public life in the 1920s. We spent a long, engrossing time studying and photographing these panels. My only complaint is that the lighting scheme cast glares across the top of each panel. Here is a sample of 4 panels.

Changing West

City Activities with Dance Hall


Instruments of Power

These detail shots show off Benton's dynamic style.

Detail: City Activities with Dance Hall

Detail: Steel
Jackson Pollack was the model for the steelworker

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

The special exhibit was huge: Ninety-two of John Singer Sargent's paintings and drawings of members of his wide-ranging artistic circle. Sargent's parents were American, but they lived a nomadic life in Europe, and he was born in Florence in 1856. His education was hap-hazard as his family tended to move around to different resorts to suit the seasons. Sargent spent his adult life much the same way—moving around Europe to paint portraits, meeting all the celebrated talents of his day, taking holidays at posh resorts with his many friends. He seems to have been a charming man who led a charmed life. His talent was sublime.

Sargent began his art studies in Paris with Carolus-Duran, a young French portrait artist. Sargent's portrait of his teacher was well-received and got his career off to a good start.

Portrait of Carolus-Duran, 1879

Sargent soon made a successful career painting society portraits. In this one the black and white of the outfit complements the piano, and red flowers add a buoyant note.

Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, 1880

In 1884 he became fascinated by the image projected by Madame Pierre Gautreau, a woman who was proud of her beauty and daring in her style. Although he usually painted for commissions, he asked Madame Gautreau to pose for him. If you study the portrait below for a moment, you'll see that the strap on her right shoulder is not in the right place. With her posture, and the position of her stiff-bodiced gown, the strap should have slipped rakishly off her shoulder, and that is the way Sargent painted it originally. But when he showed the painting at the Salon, public reaction was shocked, and he wasn't offered any further commissions in Paris. He repainted the strap in a more proper position, but close examination shows it is hastily done, and doesn't match the other one in detail.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884

Even while he was perfecting his ability to glamorize his subjects, Sargent was interested in modern trends in painting, such as Impressionism. In this painting of his friend Paul Helleu and his wife Alice, their features are less important than the strong diagonal of the red canoe and the loose, grassy brushstrokes.

An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889

Sargent moved his studio to London, where he soon became popular for his society portraits. This delightful piece depicts a notable hostess and patron of the arts who became a great friend of his.

Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, 1892

Sargent knew all the celebrities of his day, and he frequently painted his actor friends.

Edwin Booth, 1890

Joseph Jefferson as Dr. Pangloss, 1890

From 1907 on Sargent backed off formal portraits and concentrated more on water-color sketches of his painter friends and impressionistic landscapes.

Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent Sketching, 1908

Mountain Stream, c. 1914

It was really a treat to see so much work by John Singer Sargent, especially to see his more personal work, compared to the formal, commissioned portraits that are usually exhibited.

The Painting Collection

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is formidable. It is like a huge department store of art, sprawling in every direction. There are "departments" for Greek and Roman antiquities, Chinese art, Islamic art, armor, silver objects, Medieval altarpieces, etc. You can't see it all; it's just not possible. Captain Dan and I have toured the museum several times over the years. This year we had only one and a half days for it, so we focused on painting, as derived from the European tradition.

Here's a selection of art that appealed to me. It includes all the paintings by women and my particular favorites by men. These photos represent a few bites of a vast feast.

I love this early image of a strong man devoting his strength to the support of a little child. The story  is that the Christ Child asked Christopher to help him cross the river, but what I see is the strong young man who walks his children to school, carrying their backpacks, or the father who boosts his child on his shoulders so he can see over the crowd. I like the strong wading stance and Christopher's attention to the innocent child who carries the weight of the world.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1448-1494
Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ, c. 1475

The next painting has three themes. It is dominated by the peasants having lunch, in the right foreground. I like the conviviality of men and women eating and resting together, amidst the golden sheaves of grain that represent their work. Around them, other peasants are still laboring, backs bent. In the distance, a green landscape represents the larger setting for this scene; it connects to a green bit of background behind the field where a church peeps through the trees. These reaping activities are part of a settled order and all is right with the world.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525-1569
The Harvesters, 1565
The symbolism in this next painting is pretty corny, but I love the robustness of the figures; Mars is virile; Venus is voluptuous; the beautiful horse is interested in the proceedings.

Paolo Veronese, 1528-1588
Mars and Venus United by Love, 1570s

This landscape at night is charged with energy, as though revealed by a flash of lightning. The white line of buildings in the upper right falls down toward the bridge, then bounces up the other side of the painting; the stream flows toward us in the darkness. The broken pattern of yellow-greens echoes the structure of blue and gray clouds forming across the sky.

El Greco, 1540-1614
View of Toledo, 1596-1600 

Velázquez excelled at contrasting images of rough country people with supernatural icons, whether in Greek or Christian stories. In this case, a couple of ordinary guys suddenly realize their companion is Christ, risen from the grave, and circulating on earth in a farewell gesture. Christ's stillness and radiance are shown to good advantage in this plain setting.

Velázquez, 1599-1660
The Supper at Emmaus, 1622-23

Rembrandt liked to dress old guys up in fantastical costumes and imagine them as potent and dignified figures from a mythical Golden Age. This is a very beautiful portrayal of majesty.

Rembrandt, 1606-1669
Man in Oriental Costume, 1632

In France in the 1700s, there was a set of accomplished aristocratic women. Here's a beautiful and fashionable woman who plays the organ. Her expression is lovely.

François Hubert Drouais, 1727-1775
Portrait of a Woman, 1757

Several women of the time were famous and successful painters. The most famous of all was Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who is best known for romantic portraits of beautiful women. In this unusual example, she showed that she could produce a detached but penetrating portrait of a man.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755-1842
Alexandre Charles Emmanuel de Crussol-Florensac, 1787

Marie Guillelmine Benoist was a student of Vigée Le Brun's. She was well known in her day, but much of her work has disappeared.

Marie Guillemine Benoist, 1768-1826
Madame de Richemont and Her Son, 1802

Because this next painting is so superior, it was long assumed that it was made by Jacques-Louis David, the pre-eminent painter of the time. Recently it was identified as the work of little-known artist Marie Denise Villers. The sitter's face is beautiful, her costume is simple, she is intelligently engaged.

Marie Denise Villers, 1774-1821
Young Woman Drawing, 1801

While these women were making intimate portraits, their contemporary, Joseph Mallord William Turner, was using paint to report on the world he observed. Turner especially like atmospheric effects, so misty Venice was the perfect subject for him.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851
Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, c. 1835

The French art world continued to accept women of exceptional talent during the 1800s. Rosa Bonheur specialized in paintings of animals, especially horses and cows. The painting below conveys the essential energy and spirit of horses from every angle, as they are being paraded around a horse market.

Rosa Bonheur, 1822-1899
The Horse Fair, 1852-55

During the 1800s artists became increasingly interested in everyday scenes rendered in a casual manner, like snapshots even before photography. In the next example, Degas depicted a traditional bouquet but gave it a modern twist by adding the portrait of a woman waiting nervously for something, not posing but lost in thought, still wearing her coat and scarf.

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers, 1865

Of course, commissioned portraits continued to provide an income for most artists, but this posed portrait has a casual, spontaneous quality, emphasized by the child's perch on her docile pet. The children's faces are fresh and sweet. The mother hovers lovingly. The black and white of her costume matches the dog's coloring, and the little girls' matching dresses bring in a blue theme.

Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, 1878

It took me a long time to develop an appreciation for Berthe Morisot, because her style is vague and a little shy, but the picture below is charming. The girl's look is direct and her posture is energetic, as though she were in the midst of animated conversation. She sits on a couch that seems to be hanging out the window, accounting for the raked, dappled light.

Berthe Morisot, 1841-1895
Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, c. 1879

Paul Gauguin sought Paradise in Polynesia. He thought the native people there, by being less civilized, were closer to a sort of natural purity or heavenly grace. In this painting he imagines Virgin Mary and her rather large son Jesus as Tahitians, accompanied by topless worshippers and an angel with multi-colored wings. What makes this painting is the flow of color, from the vivid fruit in the foreground, through Mary's red dress, growing more muted on the skirts of the worshippers in the middle ground, and becoming a profusion of muted pastels in the background.

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891

In the late 1800s a school of painting arose in which the painters applied pigment in tiny dots of pure color. For centuries, painters had carefully blended their colors and hidden their brushstrokes, but these artists, called Pointillists, made each brushstroke discrete, a dot of pure, unmixed color, right out of the tube. The idea was that the dots of color would blend into secondary colors in the mind's eye. The result was especially vibrant images, and when a rainbow of tender colors was deployed, this style is irresistible.

Henri-Edmond Cross, 1856-1910
Pines Along the Shore, 1896

Paul Signac, 1863-1935
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles, 1905

This next painting shows a woman painter at work, all very prim and detached. Notice that her model is male. This point is made in a very subtle way, but the figure is definitely male, with a hairy chest and narrow hips. The painter was Matisse's favorite model at the time who had recently taken up painting; she was usually the object of his erotic or romantic fantasy, but now she is the creator.

Henri Matisse, 1869–1954
The Three O'Clock Sitting, 1924

The exciting thing about this painting by Joseph Stella is that it is like a kaleidoscope, fragmenting reality into a crystalline pattern. Stella treated Coney Island in several different styles. For him it represented modern life with its energy, color, and chaos.

Joseph Stella, 1877-1946
Coney Island, 1914

Colorful chaos didn't appeal to Edward Hopper. He liked his colors to be in clearcut and functional arrangements. This painting shows the interior of a café through the front window. Is the scene bustling and convivial? No. Each figure has its own space and its own lighting. Everything is properly arranged, and the waitress at the front window is checking on the arrangement there. The colors are all balanced and neatly toned down toward the background.

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967
Tables for Ladies, 1930

Georgia O'Keeffe made color the star of the show during one phase of her career, abandoning subject matter for pure abstractions. In the next painting, the colors are like the clouds of paradise. The forms are purely abstract; they can't be tied to anything in reality, but they can be tied to many things in imagination. It's that interplay between "Is it this? Or is it that?" that gives abstract art the power to hold your attention.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986-b
Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow, c. 1923

Color is what appeals to me about this work by Stanton MacDonald-Wright. His unique approach was to use colors in groups with advancing and reducing hues, moving from light to dark. He called this approach synchromy, and he had a whole theory behind it. In this painting he used synchromy to express modernism, in the form of a bi-plane in flight. Flight was only 11 years old at this time and considered quite a marvel. Part of the fun is to identify the key elements. The dark oval form in the upper center is the pilot's head. In front of him is the body of the plane and then the spinning propeller. Projecting off the top of the canvas and under the pilot are the two pairs of wings. The wheels are below. And the bottom third of the canvas is the aerial scene, with rooftops, farmland and mountains.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1890-1973
Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920

Let others experiment—Alice Neel returned to the tradition of portraiture. For part of her career she specialized in character studies of men with dark or damaged personalities.

Alice Neel, 1900-1984
Portrait of Richard Bagley, 1946

Agnes Martin is not my favorite painter, but she gets a lot of respect in the art world. She reduced the elements of painting to a bare minimum: variations of white or the palest of colors, horizontal lines or bands. If you see a lot of it together, it turns the gallery into a sort of chapel—a pure, empty place to let your mind calm down.

Agnes Martin, 1912-2004
Untitled, 1984

This painting by Leonora Carrington was covered by cheap, reflective glass, but it represents the surrealism trend followed by several women artists in the first half of the 20th century. In this self portrait, she identifies both with a rocking horse and a wild horse, and she is wearing a riding outfit and a wild mane of hair. But is something holding her back? What is the triple-breasted striped hyena about? Why does she cling to an old-fashioned armchair?

Leonora Carrington, 1917-2011
Self Portrait, c. 1938

Isolation, alienation, and meaningless, inhuman rigamarole was George Tooker's major subject. Even in today's world of cell phones and internet, sometimes you feel lost in an impersonal shuffle.

George Tooker, 1920-2011
Government Bureau, 1956

There is something scientific, experimental, about Sol LeWitt's wall drawings. Instead of knowing what he wanted to depict, he started with questions. What would this shape look like when contrasted with that shape? What colors would result if you mixed this one with that one? He took a certain aesthetic theme and tried out several variations. Frequently he blew these images up to wall-size and used them as murals to decorate long hallways. This photo shows only two sections of the long mural at the Met. LeWitt sold written instructions and sketches to museums for designs that could be applied by other technicians, so museums could install or remove them as needed.

Sol LeWitt, 1928-2007
Wall Drawing #370, 1982

Similar art values led to the development of Op Art, which strives for optical effects, such as depth, movement, and vibration. Bridget Riley is the quintessential Op Artist. I love that vibrating effect.

Bridget Riley, b. 1931
Blaze 1, 1962

Pat Steir is another important woman artist who doesn't appeal to me that much. She stands on a ladder while pouring and flinging paint, water, and solvent from oversaturated brushes and allowing the fluid media to cascade down a canvas tacked to the wall. She has remarkable control; she creates a rhythmic pattern that looks as natural as rainfall.

Pat Steir, b. 1940
Sixteen Waterfalls of Dreams, Memories, and Sentiment, 1990


There are so many great paintings at the Met—enough to give you a comprehensive overview of the history of art. I wanted to show all the work by women, and I threw in about the same number of works by men that are my special favorites. Instead of explaining the place of each work in the history of art, I tried to express what I like about it personally.

After a busy day at the Met, Captain Dan likes to have dinner at a Greek diner called Nectar, one block away on Madison. This year we invited our friends Frank King and Kelly Karavitas to join us there; we met them in the café of the Museum of Modern Art in 2007. We have so many interests in common that our conversation was very lively and engaging. Enhancing the fun, Kelly speaks fluent Greek so he was able to chat with the Greeks who run the restaurant, and they treated us more like guests than customers.