While in NYC earlier this month, PJ and I visited three art museums: the Frick Collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Morgan Library and Museum. This was our first time to visit each museum. I enjoyed all three.

The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection was founded by Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed his Manhattan residence and many of his works of art to create a public museum for the display and study of the fine arts. It has a premier collection of paintings by seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century masters.

I loved several of the works here. Among my favorites was John Constable’s 1826 painting, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden:

John Constable

As the audio guide notes, this painting obviously relates the medieval cathedral to the equally magnificent trees in the foreground, creating a statement about religion and nature. In this case, the two go hand in hand. The brightness of the cathedral framed by the darker colors of the trees draws the viewer’s eye. The grandness of the cathedral and the garden dwarf the figures in the left foreground, the bishop and his family. This painting shows a world of harmony and order, but the scene’s peaceful ease is perhaps undermined by the storm clouds in the distance. It’s a great example of English Romanticism.

Working backwards in time, I also liked Thomas Gainsborough’s The Mall in St. James’s Park, probably painted in 1783:

Thomas Gainsborough

This painting has a bit in common with the Constable at least in the sense that it too is interested in human constructs in relation to nature. Here too nature and art mimic one another as the foliage of the trees has the same fluffiness as the women’s dresses. This relation calls attention to the women’s sensibility, their ability to feel and understand the art of natural world and appropriate it for themselves. The three women are sometimes identified as the daughters of George III, but this identification cannot be substantiated.

Agnolo BronzinoGoing back even further, I admired Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of Lodovico Capponi, sixteenth-century aristocrat at the court of the Medicis. Two things struck me about this painting (other than the young nobleman’s cryptic gaze at the viewer). First, the audio guide drew my attention to the cameo he holds in the right hand. Because of the way he holds it, its inscription is obscured except for one word: sorte, which means fate. Like Other famous paintings from this period, then, this image is at least in part about the promise of youth and leads us to question what this young man’s fate might be.

The other thing that struck me is that he stands before a green curtain. Last year, the Shakespearean scholar Bruce Smith gave a lecture about the color green here at OU. I have to admit that I don’t really recall the particulars of his talk off the top of my head, so I’ve looked at his webpage to get a quick summary of his general idea. According to his page, Smith “explores what it was like to live in the kind of body imagined by early modern medicine and to perceive the world through that body. He is particularly interested in how important the senses and the passions were to perception before Descartes divorced the thinking mind from the sensing body in the middle of the 17th century.” A large part of this talk was about the color green. Since then, I’ve noticed that green appears in other Renaissance paintings, including this one, obviously. (I don’t recall what that means, unfortunately, but at least I’m remembering to notice!)

Joseph ChinardFinally, one last work that I want to mention here is Joseph Chinard’s terracotta bust of Etienne-Vincent Marniola, which he sculpted in 1809. This too is a Romantic work. On the one hand, this portrait is fairly realistic with its detailed tassels from Marniola’s cloak and the ringlets of his hair. On the other hand, at least according to the guide, his features are rather idealized. His handsome face and debonair look capture his dashing persona within the Napoleonic regime. Indeed, he was only twenty-seven when he was made prefect of of a northern part of Italy. In 1808, he returned to Paris to accept an appointment as Conseiller d’État. He was clearly marked for quick advancement within the regime. Unfortunately, this advancement was cut short by his sudden death in 1809. This terracotta bust was essentially the model for what was probably intended to be a marble one. With Marniola’s death, Chinard dropped the project. As we bought some postcards from the gift shop, one of which was a card of this bust, the woman working at the store asked me what I thought of the work. We both agreed that it is beautiful; we also agreed that, because of this beauty, this young man’s death stuck as a really sad, a testament to the power of art to make us care about someone who died two hundred years ago.

There were other works at the Frick that I also liked. These included Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, J. M. W. Turner’s Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning, Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, and William Hogarth’s Miss Mary Edwards (which also has a great story behind it).

The Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney specialized in twentieth-century American art, so I have to say that I wasn’t as into it as I was the Frick. Modern art can be a little beyond me at times. We saw a great temporary exhibit, however, entitled “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” Walker’s exploration of gender, race, and the heritage of slavery is an amazing experience. I was a little irked by the audio commentary at times, though. I particularly didn’t like that the commentators didn’t talk more about her statements about women in some of the works. One intellectual, for example, argued that black male sexuality is really the theme of one of the works. I had to disagree: I thought that particular work was all about black female sexuality. Whether you agree or disagree with the critics’ statements, it’s an interesting exhibit that will certainly provoke some discussion of race, gender, and sexuality in American culture.

One of the paintings I most enjoyed was Paul Cadmus’s Sailors and Floosies from 1938:

Paul Cadmus

The audio commentary pointed out the “homoeroticism” of this image, something I didn’t really see at first glance — except to note that the image immediately drew me to look at the sailors’ bodies instead of those of the floozies, but I figured this was just me. Apparently not. According to the audio guide, we should note that the men are being preyed upon by the women, that none of the men is as interested in having sex with any of the women as the women are in having sex with them. We should also note, it said, that the man in the foreground has his hand over his genitals, protecting them from the woman’s advances. This reading kind of makes sense to me, but I didn’t fully buy it until I saw a larger selection of Cadmus’s work at this website. When viewed in this context, it’s hard not to see everything he did as explicitly homoerotic!

The Morgan Library and Museum

I really enjoyed the Morgan Library, which is another museum/collection donated to the public by a rich financier, in this case Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913). The collection started as his private library, so it has a great selection of manuscripts and books on display. Among the ones we saw were pages from Medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Revelations. I was also incredibly envious of Morgan’s personal study, which reminds me a bit of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Any academic would be seriously tempted to commit all sorts of late nineteenth-century industrialist atrocities to have a personal library like that! It was fun just to look at the range of books he had on his shelves, which included several editions of every important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writer I could think of.

Emile BernardThe museum also featured a special exhibit called “Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Émile Bernard.” I had never heard of Bernard before, but based on the work exhibited here I really like his painting — even more than I like Van Gogh’s. Bernard was one of the early promoters of Van Gogh’s work, and has since been overshadowed by his friend and correspondent. I didn’t find the letters all that interesting, but the paintings definitely were. Bernard doesn’t employ the same brushwork as Van Gogh, but I like his images nevertheless.

This image to the right is an example of Bernard’s work. I especially like his play with the vertical trees and the horizontal woman. I also like his color palette and the contrast of the blues and greens with the oranges and yellows of her hair and face. It also kind of reminds me of a bad photoshop job — it’s as if the woman has been added to the image without enough skill to hide the editing job. And finally, it evokes John Everett Millais’s Ophelia at the Tate Britain to me. (To see an image of it, click here and scroll down.) That seems like a stretch, but that’s what it reminded me of. But where Ophelia is dead, having drowned in the water, this woman is simply bored, lying somewhat near the water’s edge.

The Morgan has a great website with lots of images of the manuscripts in its collection. I highly recommend browsing it.

So, in conclusion, our trip to NYC was a great opportunity to see these museums (which probably goes without saying). Sometime soon, I’ll blog about my favorite museums of the year, some of which I never actually got around to writing about. Maybe one or more of these will make the list.

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