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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

Diego Rivera, Chester Dale, 1945, oil on canvas. Chester Dale Collection

By Alexandra A Jopp

Art has always been a commodity prized by the wealthy. An Old Master painting expresses many of the art world’s core beliefs regarding artistic brilliance, making it a valuable and treasured possession that signifies not only high financial status, but also – at least the owner hopes – cultural refinement and erudition. A privately assembled collection of French and American paintings on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the importance of wealthy individuals to the cultural life of a nation. “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection” is on view until July 31 on the Ground Floor of the Gallery’s West Building. In the words of one director, “the whole rib structure of the modern French school [is] here.”[1]
One of many pleasures of the exhibit is that what one finds is often unexpected: Beautifully-patterned odalisques by Renoir and Matisse are grouped with brothels and night spots by Toulouse-Lautrec, and the exhibit includes a scandalous juxtaposition of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt with Picasso, whom she believed had no ability to paint. (To Cassatt, Cubist painters had no sense of design and color). Three splendid works by George Braque, meanwhile, are assembled with still-lifes by Monet, Matisse and Picasso.
Thus, the exhibition includes familiar works of belle époque, and, thanks to its size – 81 paintings are on display – and diversity, is, at the same time, a constant source of discovery. A definite and unforgettable juxtaposition emerges. A range of distinct experiences, rather than a uniform pictorial environment, seems to be its goal.
This is the first exhibition in 45 years to explore the important works of French and American 19th and early 20th-century paintings gifted to the National Gallery by Chester Dale, an American who made his fortune in the bond market and served on the boards of trustees of several museums. In 1943, he became a trustee of the National Gallery, and he served as president of the institution until his death in 1962. Dale and his wife were famed and fervent collectors of modern art with particular emphasis on Impressionism. They assembled their collection from the 1920s through1950s.
Through their joint efforts, they acquired one of the premier collections of 19th-century French art. The art was primarily acquired in Europe then brought back to the Dales’ townhouse on 79th East Street in New York, “which despite its magnificence, is so like a museum, that Mrs. Dale generally finds it more comfortable to sleep in a nearby hotel.”[2] Many of the featured artists are cornerstones of art history, and some have never been grouped together for an exhibit. This exhibition, then, is an opportunity to see works by some of the greats of the modern era in one place for the first time. The show features masterpieces of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by such artists as Corot, Van Gogh, Picasso, Leger, Matisse, Renoir, Cassatt, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet and many others.
The exhibition examines the connection between the artistic styles of various European and American artists. There has always been a strong association between the artists associated with the French Impressionism and American Modernism movements, and this exhibition gives viewers a look at those ties.
The works are grouped not chronologically, nor by artist, but, rather, by theme, imitating how some of the pieces were originally assembled by the Dales in their townhouse. As we move from room to room, we see the changes in motif, from portraiture to landscape to still-life. The show ends with portraits by Dali and Rivera of Chester Dale, and by George Bellows and Fernand Léger of Dale’s wife, Maud.
The first gallery features works by Henri Matisse, including his famous, meticulously drawn “Plumed Hat” (1919), which Dale purchased for $2,000 in 1925. A mist of blue and green paint floats across the gallery in works by Auguste Renoir (“A Girl with a Watering Can,” 1876), Vincent van Gogh (“Girl in White,” 1890), and Amedeo Modigliani (“Gypsy Woman with Baby,” 1919). Originally, the Impressionists were grouped together by Maud and hung in the Dales’ second-floor music room and third-floor dining room. Renoir’s “Odalisque” (1870) – Maud’s favorite painting – was placed over the mantel above the piano between two other Renoirs that are included in the exhibition – “A Girl with a Watering Can” and “After Bathing” (1910). The show follows these works with Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, and his “Snow in New York” (1902), then Renoir’s “Girl with the Hoop” (1885) and Degas’s “Four Dancers” (1899).
As we stroll through the exhibition galleries, it is easy to see that portraiture dominates the collection. “Portraits are the documents by which not only the individual, but his epoch, can be recreated,” the supporting materials for the exhibition note. “In portraits, one is permitted to view the passing show, and in the images they represent of life and art, we catch again the echo of their time.”[3]
A section displaying paintings of women, domestic interiors, and women with children includes portraits by Renoir (“Mademoiselle Sicot,” 1865), Picasso (“Madame Picasso,” 1923) and Degas (“Madame Rene de Gas,” 1872-3), as well as nudes and studies of the female form by Renoir, Cassatt, Matisse and Courbet. Other works by Cassatt (“The Boating Party,” 1893-4; “Girl Arranging Her Hair,” 1886; “Mother and Child,” 1905; and “The Lodge,” 1882) offer representations of the world of mothers and children and women’s daily lives. Portraits of men are also featured, with works by Degas, Picasso, Cézanne and Edouard Vuillard.
A landscapes and cityscapes section includes two of Monet’s depictions of Rouen Cathedral from 1894. Dale owned 11 paintings by Monet, all of them open-air scenes with the exception of the still-life, “Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers” (1880), which is found in the next room of the exhibition. Monet’s cathedrals are shown with works by Eugene Boudin, who, in Corot’s words, was “the master of the sky.” Boudin was a forerunner of Impressionism who is not that well-known, but he was the man who inspired Monet. He is represented by “The Beach at Villerville” (1864), a painting that is reminiscent of Monet’s modern beach scenes in advocating the plein-air technique. George Bellows’s “Blue Morning” (1909) and Robert Henri’s “Snow in New York” (1902) are also on display.
Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” (1863) and Edouard Manet’s “The Old Musician” (1862) are in the center of the gallery opposite Picasso’s “Family of Saltimbanques” (1905). According to one critic, the pairing expresses the idea of “monumental modernity,” where “the synergy in subject and composition between these two masterworks creates a dramatic pairing.” 5
The room also features Paul Gauguin’s “Self-Portrait” (1889), Van Gogh’s “La Mousmé” (1888), and Toulouse-Lautrec’s “A Corner of the Moulin de la Galette” (1892).
The Chester Dale Collection was a magnificent bequest to the National Gallery of Art and remains one of America’s most important collections of French painting from the late 19th and early 20th century. His collection enhances the nation’s environment because he contributed paintings that were not only important historically, but paintings he loved. We get the enjoyment of living with them, and that is twofold: it makes the city look great and also gives us a sense of incomparable satisfaction and pleasure to be surrounded by most adored paintings. 
1. Katherine Eastland, "Portrait of Collector ," The National Gallery of Art honors Chester and Maud Dale with a fitting exhibition (Washington, DC: The Weekly Standard, 2 3, 2010).
2. Henry Robinson Luce, "Chester Dale Has Spent $ 6,000,000 For French Painting," Life, October 10, 1938: 29-30.
3. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, January - July 31, 2011. Exhibition Catalogue. 2009
4. Therese Southgate, "The Cover: Still Life With Apples on a Pink Tablecloth," JAMA, 1995: 1810.

[1] Eastland, Katherine. “Portrait of Collector.” The National Gallery of Art honors Chester and Maud Dale with a fitting exhibition (Washington, D.C.: The Weekly Standard, 2 3, 2010).
[2] Luce, Henry Robinson. “Chester Dale Has Spent $ 6,000,000 For French Painting,” Life, October 10, 1938: 29-30.
[3]  From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, January 31- July 31, 2011.
[4]  Therese Southgate, "The Cover: Still Life With Apples on a Pink Tablecloth," JAMA, 1995: 1810.

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