Traveler contributing editor Jim Conaway reviews two new exhibits that just recently opened in Washington, D.C.
Thank God for the women, I’m thinking, standing in the bright, airy space of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I don’t necessarily mean the model for Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion, with her gorgeous, rosy skin, or the sensually draped courtesan in Renoir’s Odalisque. I don’t mean the lively bathers in Gauguin’s Fatata te Miti, or the woman with a fan in Degas’s Madame Camus. I mean the subject of the sturdy rendition by Fernand Legér at the conclusion of the new show, “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection.” It’s of a woman in a blue scarf, Maud Dale, wife of the industrialist Chester Dale and the guiding hand in this phenomenal assembly of paintings.
From the 19th and early 20th century, they all belong to the National Gallery, and although they have in the past been included as part of other exhibitions, this is the first time 81 of the finest have been brought together in one landmark show. They include not just the backbone of French painting of the period (and, as the curator points out, the entire rib structure as well), but also American works of the time. This isn’t just another grand gathering of significant work, much of which you may have seen in reproduction, but a careful selection of now-famous artists working close to the top of their form.
The eye of the selector proved to be both consistent, and deft. If Maud Dale knew what she liked, apparently her husband agreed. Light is a definite motif here; so is the color blue, at least to my mind. It led me happily, if not from one painting to the next, at least as a kind of pigmented through-line: the oarsman’s jacket in Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party; the dress in Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can; Picasso’s mournful The Tragedy; Claude Monet’s dreamy Houses of Parliament, George Bellow’s iconic depiction of New York Harbor, Blue Morning; Corot’s and Cezanne’s skies, and the luminous azure backdrop in the portrait of Chester Dale by Salvador Dali.
There’s another portrait of Dale, by Diego Rivera – in a blue suit, of course. Since the benefactor stipulated that the art he bequeathed to the gallery in 1962 could not travel, you have to travel to it. And you should.
Good taste and artistic assertiveness by women are also in evidence just up Pennsylvania Avenue, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. There you’ll find the just-opened “Turner to Cezanne, Masterpieces from the Davies Collection,” on loan from the National Museum of Wales. These paintings were collected by the sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, granddaughters of David Davies who made a fortune in the mid-19th century in coal mining, and it’s a gem. The formidable Davies girls never married and could well afford to pursue their love and knowledge of art, the evidence of which is now on view in this country for the first time.
Among the stunning paintings at the Corcoran by Turner, Cezanne, Whistler and others is Monet’s San Giorgio, echoing his work in the National Gallery. Likewise, the famous Corots in this show – particularly Fishermen Moored at the Bank – recall works in the Dale collection by the same painter. One of the most affective, Van Gogh’s Rain – Auvers, painted on an elongated double square of canvas, shows a mournful landscape in the neighborhood of the asylum where Van Gogh was living. One of the last paintings he did before committing suicide in 1890, this one is slashed with rain and reminds me of the great inventiveness and commitment of this brilliant, troubled artist.
Image: Above, Maud Dale, by Fernand Léger, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art; Below, Vincent van Gogh – Rain-Auvers, 1890, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery.