Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Addison Gallery/An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

James McNeill Whistler, Thames Warehouses, 1859

Link to Exhibition Website:

Curators: Margaret F. MacDonald  and Dr. Patricia de Montfort, University of Glasgow

From the Press Release: "This exhibition brings together numerous paintings, prints, and drawings from this pivotal period in Whistler's career, providing a detailed examination of his approach to composition, subject and technique."

This exhibition opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and will travel to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, after the Addison.

Reviews of the London installation can be found here and here.

Recommended For: A deep, meaningful and satisfying connection with James McNeill Whistler

Museum administrators may dream longingly of big-draw blockbusters, but often it is the smaller exhibitions that deliver a more satisfying experience for the visitor. An American in London is the kind of small show that proves this point. The show is thoughtful, insightful, deftly composed and arranged, and full of works of outstanding artistic quality and achievement.

Whistler and the Thames introduces us to a young and eager artist and lets us journey with him across the decades of his career. Whistler experiments with a variety of media and techniques of representation, but the common context of the bustling banks of London's Thames- the neighborhood in which Whistler actually lived and worked- provides a strong connective narrative that tells a coherent and compelling story from beginning to end. Curators Margaret MacDonald and Patricia de Montfort connect us with the working Whistler in an engaging and thorough fashion.

Our introduction to Whistler comes in a series of etchings and drypoints of the gritty Thames waterfront begun in the late 1850s and published as a folio titled the Thames Set in 1871. The works are simply astounding. Whistler's adroit skill with the medium reminded me of John Singer Sargent's command of watercolor demonstrated by the recent MFA show. This section is enhanced by clear and eloquent labels outlining the demanding process of engraved prints. 

The body of An American in London brings together a large group of works that put us squarely behind Whistler's editorial eye. Through sketches, watercolors, oils and other media, we see the artist repetitively shaping, rearranging, and reworking his subject striving for a satisfactory balance of composition, color and effect. The impressive diversity of the sources of the loaned works is a telling tribute to the depth of scholarship achieved by curators MacDonald and de Montfort. 

Whistler's mature form, which we have seen develop over the course of the exhibition, really comes into its own in the final third of the show dedicated to his Nocturnes and his fascination with Battersea Bridge. The remarkable works shown here show the painter as daring, experimental and pushing the boundaries of aesthetic representation in his day.  The works, centered around the magical oil on canvas Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, provide a deeply satisfying finish to the exhibition. Both the curators and the Addison are to be congratulated for bringing such a compelling show to the Boston area.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge, 1872/73

Monday, February 17, 2014

PMA/Fine Lines: American Drawing from the Brooklyn Museum

Winslow Homer, Study for "The Unruly Calf" ca.1875

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: Karen A. Sherry, Chief Curator and Curator of American Art, Portland Museum of Art

From the Press Release: "Fine Lines showcases drawing as a dynamic art form in the United States across two centuries."

This exhibition opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the late spring of 2013. A New York Times review of that installation can be found here.

Recommended For: a behind-the-frame glimpse of the making of American art history.

The Experience:
OK, unlike Worcester or Lowell, which are deceptively close to Boston, Portland is legitimately something of a hike to get to from the Hub. But worth it. The Portland Museum of Art is a terrific destination and downtown Portland is a super place to eat. So, plan for the day and you won't be sorry.

Fine Lines, is a modestly-sized exhibition tastefully installed in the changing exhibition galleries of PMA just off the lobby. The show is thoughtfully organized by curator Karen Sherry into sections according to compositional subject- the portraits are together, the anatomical studies, the narrative works, the landscapes, etc. This organization allows the visitor to appreciate the wide range of techniques and modes of representation utilized by a impressive range of American artists. The artists of the drawings shown- and there's over 70 different artists represented- reads like a veritable who's who of American art history. This is a real tribute to the depth and importance of the Brooklyn Museum's holdings. I will say that it helps to view Fine Lines with a familiarity with the finished works of the artists included. In some cases, an example or thumbnail of the finished works is provided, but often it is left to the viewer's own knowledge.

It was the varied functions of the drawings that intrigued me.  Some were studies for later works finished in another medium such as painting or print. Others were part of the artistic training of the artists, studies of human form and landscape studies and suchlike. Still others, like some of the travel sketchbooks, were merely of subjects that caught the artists' eye. Studying the catalog (which is fantastic) after the show, I couldn't help but wonder if the function of the sketches, rather than their subject matter, couldn't have provided a compelling alternate organization for the show.

That aside, there are some truly exceptional pieces in the show that stopped me in my tracks with their arresting immediacy and the powerful insight into the artist's mind they provided: Robert Henri's Nude Perched on Chair, Bradley Walker Tomlin's Back, Minerva Josephine Chapman's Woman in Profile and Charles Caryl Coleman's A Shower of Ashes upon Ottavaino. My favorite two sketches in the show were Benjamin Orso Eggleston's Little Girl Holding an Apple and Albert Bierstadt's Study of a Ewe.

Drawing happens to be one of my favorite media, and it was a real treat to see such a sweeping collection of examples on view. Portland may be a bit of a drive, but Fine Lines will make you glad you went.

Benjamin Orso Eggleston, Little Girl Holding an Apple, 1927