Monday, October 23, 2017

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting at the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry 

National Gallery of Art, October 22, 2017 - January 21, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

During the 1600's, the Dutch often compared themselves to the outnumbered Israelites battling against the Philistine hosts. After fighting for eighty years against the mighty Spanish Hapsburg empire, the United Provinces could be excused for a moment of self-congratulation in 1648. When the Treaty of Munster brought hostilities to an end that year, the Dutch had triumphed. David of the Netherlands had slain the Spanish Goliath.

The Dutch art of the Golden Age reflects that incredible victory - but in an unexpected way.  

Following the Treaty of Munster, depictions of military campaigns, never a major facet in Dutch art,  fell out of favor.  The popularity of Biblical scenes, a big feature of Rembrandt's early career, likewise declined. Instead, Dutch Gouden Eeuw artists evoked quiet harmony. Peaceful, "homey" moments for people grown tired of war were the order of the day.

These Dutch masters are the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington D.C., Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. The National Gallery is the final venue for this exhibit, following earlier displays at the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

If Vermeer is the headline artist that is because the enigmatic painter from Delft has come to overshadow the other Dutch genre painters in this wonderful exhibit. 

Some of the finest examples of Vermeer's limited oeuvre, like Louvre's The Lacemaker, are on view in this wondrous exhibition. For three months, the Gouden Eeuw will live again and every art lover who can, should journey back in time, via the National Gallery in Washington D.C., to the age of Vermeer.

The NGA exhibit, for all of its celebration of Vermeer, does us the great service of seeing him within the context of his era.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting 

Vermeer actually represents the culmination of the post-Eighty Years War passion for genre painting. Throngs of people rush to see works by Vermeer but they should pay more attention to Gerhard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and the other Dutch genre painters. Thanks to the NGA exhibition, art lovers will be able to do exactly that.

Several surprises await them.

Gerhard ter Borch (1617-1681) is the unexpected "star" of the NGA exhibit and his works impressed me greatly. I find myself in complete agreement with the curator of the exhibition, Arthur Wheelock Jr, that ter Borch "is in many ways the most intriguing painter in the exhibition and the one who had the greatest impact on his colleagues." 
Wheelock further notes in the exhibition catalog:

Ter Borch mined gestures and expressions of figures to convey emotion, sometimes love or compassion, but also those fleeting moments of uncertainty that usually pass unnoticed by even the most observant friends and family. With these intimate scenes, which emphasised the inner life of his figures, ter Borch transformed the notion of "modern" in Dutch genre painting.

As well as providing new insights, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is a valedictory tribute to the great series of Dutch Golden Age exhibits that the NGA has hosted over recent years. These began with the celebrated Vermeer retrospective of 1995-1996. This incredible exhibit displayed 22 of the the 35 known works by Joannes Vermeer, including the  "Mona Lisa of the North," The Girl with the Pearl Earring

The 1995-96 Vermeer exhibit was anything but a harmonious affair. The US Government lurched to a halt during the budget feud between Congress and the Clinton administration. Along with a huge snow storm in January 1996, the galleries of the NGA were closed for nineteen days of the Vermeer exhibit's three month schedule. 

The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not making an appearance at this exhibition but a very impressive array of ten other Vermeer paintings are included. There are thirteen works by ter Borch on display, as well as superb examples of the other major Dutch genre painters,  including Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Caspar Netscher and Nicolaes Maes.

It is only natural that the NGA capitalizes upon Vermeer's current superstar status. And most of his works really do stand-out above the rest, though several of ter Borch's paintings more than hold their own. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1662-65

Looking down the galleries of the exhibit, I was amazed to see Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace glowing in the distance. It was, of course, a brilliant manipulation of overhead lighting to achieve such an effect. But it was the sheer brilliance of Vermeer's handling of natural light over three centuries ago that makes possible such a display of curatorial skill. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Video frame from Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

The exhibiton presents a short video enabling a "compare-contrast" of Vermeer's paintings with those of the other genre masters. It is clear that Vermeer's Lady Writing, painted around 1665-67, was created with a deep awareness of ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter.  

Ter Borch's masterpiece dates to a decade earlier. It is a superlative work, with his sister, Gesina, posing as a model. She was a gifted painter and poet in her own right. 

Gerhard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655-56

Whether Vermeer, who seldom ventured far from Delft, saw ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter is a difficult question to answer. But as a member of the Delft-branch of the artist's association, the Guild of St. Luke, Vermeer must have been familiar with the work of ter Borch (who lived in distant Devanter), at least by reputation. 

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing, c. 1665

The major difference between these two paintings is the direct gaze of Vermeer's protagonist. She is regarding us, the viewers, rather than being absorbed writing a letter as Gesina ter Borch was.  However, comparison of these works by Vermeer and ter Borch gains in fascination if we include another painting by the latter artist in the discussion.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page

This is ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, painted about 1657. Gesina ter Borch apparently posed for the singer in the middle of the painting. 

However, it is the page who is the figure of real interest. The adolescent page boy, gingerly bringing in a carafe of beer or cider, looks directly toward us the viewer, just as Vermeer's Lady Writing would do nearly a decade later. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Detail of Ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page

The bemused look on the page boy's face is so similar to that of Vermeer's Lady that it is almost inconceivable that Vermeer had not seen ter Borch's painting before beginning work on his.

Such is the lack of documentation about Vermeer's life that we are unlikely ever to know if he had the opportunity to travel around Holland to see the work of his contemporaries. We may think that Vermeer was influenced by ter Borch as other Dutch artists were. Yet, we don't know for certain.

We are on much firmer ground to emphasize the cultural connections of these Dutch genre masters during the years following the Treaty of Munster. To a remarkable degree, the shared aspirations and similar standards of work and play among the Dutch people created an emotional atmosphere favoring the creation of these genre paintings.

In his book, Paragons of Virtue, Wayne E. Frantis emphasized the importance of the everyday life and culture of the Dutch people during the Gouden Eeuw. Earlier scholars had been obsessed with “decoding” the symbolism and allegorical references that they saw depicted in Dutch art. 

These didactic elements certainly existed, as can be seen in many of Vermeer's paintings. The painting of the Last Judgment in the background of Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, is a good example of this subtle moralizing. However, Dutch art from the 1650's onward was firmly grounded in the realities of contemporary Dutch society, which no longer displayed the kind of Calvinistic religious fervor that had characterized the war years. Genre paintings reflected the new intimacy and self-indulgence of Dutch society.

Frantis, one of today's leading scholars of Gouden Eeuw art, broadened the scope of his investigation beyond the visual arts. Frantis found that Dutch literature and music of the period also reflected a “realistic style” as well. Frantis quotes the preface of the Great Songbook of 1622, revealing how the practical, sensible world view of the Dutch permeated even the soaring, impassioned realm of music

Gerbrandt Bredero, (1585-1618) poet, playwright and song composer, wrote in the Great Songbook of 1622 (which was actually published four years after his death) that:

As for me, I have learned from one book only, the book of practice; if I have made some mistakes because of my insufficient knowledge of foreign languages, sciences, and arts, I, unscholarly layman, beg your pardon; be a little tolerant of this Dutchman… I have followed the saying common among painters: Those who come closest to real life are the best painters… 

This digression to the world of music is certainly worth taking given the number of Dutch genre paintings which depict small ensembles or individual musicians or singers.

Jan Steen, Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659

Jan Steen's beautiful Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man (c. 1659) is a superb example of  the intersecting creative realms of art and music. It artfully evokes differing modes of attention, the young woman's on the notes of the musical score, the young man's gaze upon her delicate fingers as they strike the keyboard.

Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, was painted around 1675, a decade and a half after Jan Steen's musical tableau. What is noteworthy here is the emphasis on material cultural, the conspicuous display of expensive musical instruments, sumptuous fabrics and elaborate decor. Art and human artifice, so notable in Steen's painting, have been reduced to a mere pose in Vermeer's.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1675

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal was one of Vermeer's last paintings. By the time, Vermeer worked on it, another change was overtaking Dutch art, as evidenced by this painting. The human-scale joys that the earlier genre works had celebrated were increasingly replaced by more attention to a celebration of "worldly goods." It was the Dutch equivalent of "keeping up with the Jones."

I found that the works of Pieter de Hooch in the exhibition confirmed Kenneth Clark's observation in Civilization on the growing elitism of the Dutch genre painters:

In 1660, he (de Hooch) was painting pictures of clean, simple interiors, their ordered space full of light. Ten years later his interiors were very elaborate, and instead of light whitewashed walls there was gold Spanish leather. The people were richer: and the pictures much less beautiful. 

De Hooch's Woman Weighing Coins, painted around 1664, illustrates this surface glitter to perfection. His protagonist shrinks into her rich attire to such a degree that we barely see her face. The room's blaze of garish color differs drastically from the modest red skirt and yellow towel in de Hooch's earlier Woman Nursing a Child with a Child and a Dog (1658). 

Pieter de Hooch, Woman Weighing Coins, c. 1664

To their credit, the Dutch at the end of the seventeenth century did not entirely succumb to crass materialism. Most of these genre paintings, right up to the passing of the Gouden Eeuw, made an effort to balance the affairs of the soul with those of the body. Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance is just the best-known in this respect 

It is measure of the Dutch achievement in art, science, philosophical inquiry and religious toleration that their Gouden Eeuw came closest to being an actual golden age, more so than any other society in recorded history.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

The quiet dignity, simple joys and - occasionally - ribald sensuality that we see displayed in these wondrous genre scenes on view at the National Gallery of Art testify to the core humanity of the Dutch during their golden century of achievement.

God made the world, as the old proverb declares, but it was the intrepid, freedom-loving Dutch who created Holland. These endearing genre scenes from the age of Vermeer are the art works that the Dutch painted on their day of rest.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Ed Voves

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) The Lacemaker, c. 1670-71, Oil on canvas, transferred to panel. Overall  (framed): 71 x 63 cm (27 15/16 x 24 13/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, Acquired in 1870

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibit, showing patrons examining Jan Stein's Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1662-65, Oil on canvas, framed: 76 x 69 cm (29 15/16 x 27 3/16 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of the National Gallery of Art video, showing contrasting details of Johannes Vermeer's Lady Writing, c. 1665-67, with Gerhard ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter, c.1655-56.  

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Lady Writing, c. 1665. Oil on canvas,framed: 68.3 x 62.2 x 7 cm (26 7/8 x 24 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer

Gerhard ter Borch (1617-1681) Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655-56. Oilil on panel, overall: 39 x 29.5 cm (15 3/8 x 11 5/8 in.) Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, c. 1657. Oil on panel, unframed: 47 × 44 cm (18 1/2 × 17 5/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, ParisPhoto © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Franck Raux

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Detail of Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, c. 1657. 

Jan Steen (Dutch, 1625-1679) Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659. Oil on panel, framed: 60.5 × 51.5 cm (23 13/16 × 20 1/4 in.) The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1871. © The National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1675. Oil on canvas, framed: 73 × 67.5 × 8.5 cm (28 3/4 × 26 9/16 × 3 3/8 in.) The National Gallery, London. Salting Bequest, 1910 © The National Gallery, London

Pieter de Hooch (Dutch 1629-1684) Woman Weighing Coins, c. 1664. Oil on canvas, unframed: 61 × 53 cm (24 × 20 7/8 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Property of Kaiser Friedrich Museumsverein. bpk/Gemäldegalerie, SMB, Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich Museumsvereins/Jörg P. Anders 

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664. Oil on canvas.
Framed: 62.9 x 58.4 x 7.6 cm (24 3/4 x 23 x 3 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection     

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.