R.A.H. (againstathorn) wrote,

The Milwaukee Art Museum

This past Saturday in Milwaukee we paid a visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Our first stop was their featured exhibition, Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper. I’m not the biggest fan of Impressionism but there were a number of really interesting pieces, including some seascape charcoal drawings by Georges Seurat, a haunting work by Albert Charles Lebourg titled Algerian Landscape, and four beautiful pastel pieces by Italian impressionist painter Federico Zandomeneghi. This was my first exposure by Zandomeneghi’s work and I’ll definitely be seeking out more.

Next we moved onward to the permanent collections of European and American art. I’ll address certain pieces which aroused my interest without dwelling too much on the more popular works.

In the effort to keep things cohesive, I’ll go country by country.

Let’s start with the Italian works, of which the MAM has solid collection. There were a few pieces which immediately caught my attention; I can recognize an Alessandro Magnasco from a mile away, and they just so happened to have a work of his titled Landscape with Monks. His figures are always lanky and somewhat squiggly, and the also have a tendency to blend in with the background, especially in wilderness pieces. Here the monks almost resemble ornaments hanging from a tree. Magnasco wasn’t the most technically proficient baroque painter but he certainly had a very identifiable style. I also enjoyed The Meeting of Telemachus and Calypso, attributed to Antonio Balestra, a painter who was active during the early 18th century and shows a definite rococo influence. This particular piece was quite stunning and showcased a strong, wonderful profile of Calypso which couldn’t help remind me of the works by the great Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. There was also an excellent piece on display by Sofonisba Anguissola, Minerva Anguissola, a haunting portrait of the artist’s sister. Having since read up on the weirdness surrounding Auguissola, she appeared to have been a definite precursor to Artemisia Gentileschi.

Next we have Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s Noah and the Animals Entering the Ark, 1650, a huge canvas which displays over a dozen set of animals, including a pair of Guinea pigs, which I imagine would’ve been new to Europe as an import from South America. The presentation of the animals exhibits a heavy emulation of the Flemish style headed by Anthony Van Dyck. Other Italian paintings of interest included Girolamo Mengozzi’s Architectural Fantasy with Figures, which might remind one of a Hubert Robert’s capriccios, Corrado Giaquinto’s companion pieces, Triumph of Galatea and Rape of Europa, and lest we forget a forgettable set of landscape panels by Andrea Locatelli. A simple Google search on Locatelli brings up some rather interesting work outside of the Rococo genre. Perhaps these two paintings were commissioned as mere decorative pieces.

Let’s move on to the Dutch works. The MAM has a well rounded assortment of genre pieces which characterize the Dutch Golden Age. We have the predicable but handsome Still Life with a Crab by Pieter Claesz, and a straight forward but technically masterful architectural work by Hendrik Cornelisz Van Vliet, and an extremely detailed seascape, Ships in the Amsterdam Harbor, by Reinier Zeeman.

The Dutch collection also had some excellent examples of portraiture. Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of an Oriental shows an obvious influence from Rembrandt, and I’m surprised to discover that this particular painter wasn’t listed as one of the many former Rembrandt pupils who latter forged works under his master’s name. Again, it’s an excellent piece. The oils don’t quite posses the texture and array of colors on might expect in an actual Rembrandt but it’s still an excellent work on its own right. I’d be interested in the artist’s intentions for portraying this particular subject. There were also two pairs of traditionally grim portraits, one by Jan Victors and the other by Govaert Flinck. I was underwhelmed at first but after studying the female portrait by Jan Victor I noticed the wonderful rendering of her hand gently holding a small ornamented book. Seriously, this was the most fascinating part of the entire painting. I’m a sucker for these esoteric details. This image alone would’ve made an exceptional still-life.

Ah yes, and now we have the French works. Well, you can’t get any more French than Rococo, that unapologetically gaudy style which was popular amongst the royalty during the years leading up to the French Revolution. Unnatural foliage, chubby flying cupids, less than subtle expressions of sensuality—it’s no wonder the Reign of Terror took place. The MAM just so happens to have a room decided to Rococo works. Dead center is what looks to be a François Boucher but it’s actually Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Shepherdess. It’s a lovely piece with fine attention to line and color. As with most Rococo works, the foliage is extremely artificial and serves only as a compositional tool, but this is still an excellent painting and should be considered a high point of the style. Also, for a Fragonard the subject matter is fairly tame, especially compared to the work directly to its left, Amédée van Loo’s wonderfully decadent The Satyrs, which depicts our great god Bacchus intoxicating some happy nudes with a ridiculously huge vat of wine. Just looking at this painting makes you feel in need of a shower.

Before moving on to more French paintings I must comment on A Roman Amateur by English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema. I’ve been a huge fan of Alma-Tadema for many years but I was disappointed by the small size of this particular piece. With this being a highly narrative work I thought it would be larger, but unfortunately at its current size the details are dwarfed and the elements are not given adequate space to breathe. And I must add that the highly ostantasous gold-gilded frame is extremely distracting.

Ok, now for more French paintings, as if two weren’t enough. Most people will be drawn to the excellent William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting Homer and His Guide, a technically superb, excellent representation of the academic style championed by the Solon. This work was completed in 1874 at a time when I’m public interest for this particular style was fading in favor of Realism and Impressionism. I really do love this genre of painting and all the ideals and aesthetics it represents. It’s such a tragedy that the movement’s significance was marginalized by the likes of Courbet and Manet.

As most of you already know, I love 19th century Orientalist Art, especially those by French artists who traveled through settlements in North Africa. At the MAM we have some fairly straight forward works, such as Eugène Delacroix’s Arab Encampment, Charles Théodore Frère’s Scene Near Giza (Egypt), and Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant’s Evening on the Seashore-Tangiers. And then there is Jean-Léon Gérôme The Two Majesties, an unusually somber piece depicting a regal lion watching the sunset. It’s quaint and touching piece from an artists known primarily for depictions of Arab sentinels and Turkish bathers. Oh, and the MAM apparently has one French Orientialist work which unfortunately wasn’t on display: Eugène Fromentin’s Arabs (Cavaliers Arabs in Observations dans la Montagne), which I would’ve loved to have seen!

Moving on, there were a few French pastoral/Barbizon paintings which I must mention—Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Le Mont Ussy, Théodore Rousseau’s Sunset Landscape, and of course the gargantuan Le Père Jacques by Jules Bastien-Lepage. I admired the piece by Bastien-Lepage but it seems too large considering that it’s down at eye level with the viewer. A work like this feels like it should be positioned higher in order to dominate the gallery.

Let’s continue on to the German pieces. Perhaps the most interesting is Christian Ludwig Bokelmann’s The People’s Bank Shortly Before the Crash, 1877, which depicts a crowded street scene outside a bank. The narrative is fairly ambiguous though there are some small clues, like the smashed flower pot on the street and juxtaposition between wealthy and poorer classes, but overall the work lacks a solid focal point which gives it a more realistic quality. Another excellent German work is August Johann Holmberg’s highly detailed The Latest Acquisition, a large painting which allows the viewer to observe all treasures in the old collector’s vault. It’s a fine, handsome piece with a bounty of textures and information to absorb. I was also impressed by the highly impressionistic The Wallachian Post-Carrier by Christian Adolf Schreyer though I think it would’ve been more effective if it’d been executed on a smaller scale.

The MAM has a very respectable collection of 19th century German genre paintings, and there is in fact an entire gallery devoted to such works. Pieces of interest included Michael Carl Gregorovius’s View of Danzig, Ernest Ferdinand Oehme’s Wissen in Winter, Ludwig Knaus’s Dance Under the Linden Tree, and Ernest Bosch Far From Home--all wonderful piece with strong narratives and excellent technical skill. I especially enjoyed the Gregorovius piece for its historical significance, as well as the Oehme for its soft, luminescent qualities.

I must note my discovery of two excellent German painters, Hugo Wilhelm Kauffmann and Eduard von Grutzner. Kauffmann’s Zither Player looks innocent enough but paired with his Old Suitor it takes on a more misogynistic quality. Grutzner’s canvases are nothing short of fantastic, depicting German folk enjoying their various leisurely activities. His works here include Falstaff Mustering Recruits, Shaving Day at the Monastery, The Catastrophe, and The Card Players. Consequently, Albert Speer once said that Hitler regarded Grutzner as one of his favorite painters. Yeah, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to people nowadays.

Also on display were five small-scale works by Carl Spitzweg—my favorites being Scholar of Natural Sciences and The Town Crier. Spitzberg is of course best known for his The Bookworm at the Museum Georg Schäfer in Germany. His work is said to be a definitive example of Biedermeier art, a European style popular in the early 19th century. I also enjoyed Karl Freidrich Lessing’s small but handsome Castle Elte, a wonderful piece of landscape with a delicate usage of light. We also have Wilhelm Riefstahl’s ostentatious Wedding Procession in Tyrol which bears in almost cinematic narrative.

And then we have the Austrian pieces. I must point out Friedrich Gauermann’s The Holdup, which I encounter earlier this year in Chicago when it was featured in the Tragedy & the Muse exhibit at the Smart Art Gallery. I also made note of artist of Austrian artist Ferdinarnd Georg Waldmuller who painted several lovely genre pieces which were on display.

On a side note, I really wanted to see Andreas Achenbach’s Fish Market at Ostend and Paul Friedrich Meyerheim’s A Darwinian Prehistoric Social Party but apparently they weren’t out for viewing. Oh well.

Again, the MAM’s collection of German and Austrian works is quite unique and represents a strong sense of heritage and tradition.

And finally we have the American pieces. I guess I should start with Benjamin West’s General Monk Receiving Charles II on the Beaches of Dover. West is primarily known as an American painter but he also as worked under George III. I assume this particular piece depicting Charles II was commissioned during his time in England. Anyway, this is a fairly straight forward historical, which is really saying something considering it’s a Benjamin West, a painter otherwise known for extremely complicated narratives.

Next we have a gallery showcasing the paintings of Robert Henri, one of my favorite American portraitists, alongside works from his fellow members of the Ashcan School. Henri’s Betalo Nude is an absolutely stunning piece that shows a mastery of color and tone. Also featured are urban scenes such as Everett Shinn’s Nightclub Scene and George Benjamin Luks’s Bleecker and Carmine Streets, New York. The whole gallery represents a visual style that was not only expressionate but also realistic and bold.

The lower level of the MAM hosts their expanded galleries of American works, spanning from colonial period to late 19th century. Two prominent paintings here were Eastman Johnson’s The Old Stagecoach and Homer Winslow Hark! The Lark. The Stagecoach depicts a large group of children playing on a defunct covered wagon. Look closely and you’ll notice the children appear to be mimicking activities they’ve observed from adults. Some the children are straining to pull the coach while others lounge in the carriage. This otherwise mundane scene could be seen as a poignant representation on the class system in America.
And then we have Hark! The Lark, a handsome pastoral scene which exhibits a strong Barbizon influence. In my opinion, it is one of Winslow’s best pieces.

Onward you’ll find plenty of excellent landscape work from Hudson River School artists, including Asher Brown Durand’s In The Catskills, Frederic Edwin Church’s A Passing Shower, John Frederick Kensett’s Lakes of Killarney, Robert S. Duncanson’s Minneopa Falls, and Thomas Cole’s Storm in the Wilderness. I’m really starting to appreciate the subtleties of Durand and Duncanson’s work. Everyone loves a dark and sublime Cole or a colorful and exotic Church, but works by the other painters tend to be a more astute and therefore demand more attention. There’s also another Thomas Moran painting of the Grand Canyon, and form what I’ve read the MAM possesses one of his Venetian views but unfortunately it was not out on display. As I’ve stated before, it says a lot about an artist’s range when his two best known series of works were those based on Venice and the Grand Canyon.

Of course right smack dab in the middle of these pieces is a landscape by German-American painter Henry Vianden titled Landscape with Mountains and River. It definitely stands out as a highly detailed and well composed though it doesn’t posses the same aesthetic of the HRS works.

There are also two Albert Bierstadt paintings, Grizzly Bears and Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, though they’re not the massive canvases one might anticipate. Apart from Grizzly Bears being highly atypical of Bierstadt's work, it’s actually quite an endearing study, complete with an unfinished rendering of a bear head toward the bottom.

And next we have a few tonalist works by acclaimed American painter George Inness. I get the notion that these canvases have darkened a bit with age. Other works of note are John Singer Sargent’s The Smoky Thames and two excellent still lifes, Richard LeBarre Goodwin’s Hunting Cabin Door and John Frederick Peto’s Market Basket, Hat and Umbrella. The Goodwin piece actually bears a resemblance to the work of William Harnet, though it’s missing his signature idiosyncrasies. My favorite section of this painting is where you can see all the scratches on the wood caused by the tiny hook latch. I love those little details.

I also must note that the following pieces from their American collection were not out on display:

William Merritt Chase - Still Life with Ladle
Hovsep Pushman - The Incense Burner, before
Maitland Armstrong - The Bar, Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert
Richard Lorenz - Solitude (also known as Prairie Twilight)

Anyway, that’s my overview of the American and European collections at the MAM.

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