A Sunday trip to the Birmingham Museum of Art doesn’t provide enough time to cover its comprehensive collection, especially its Vietnamese ceramics exhibition, one of the finest in the world, and its Wedgewood collection, the largest outside England.
Fortunately, the American Art and Decorative Art collection is substantial, yet not overwhelming. Paintings are largely organized in thematic and chronological order on different walls and one would move counter-clockwise to complete a circle to survey American Art from the colonial period to 1920’s.
Among a few paintings from Colonial and Federal periods, I was surprised to see portraiture by Raphaelle Peale. Margaret George McGlathery looks sincere and reserved. The mouth has ceded where the teeth used to be, and her eyes seems penetrating to whoever is looking at her. Rapahaelle’s empathetic yet candid treatment of his sitter put him above his brother Rembrandt Peale, who enameled his female sitters with contrived nicety like a rose medallion plate. Yet maybe due to the special relationship (Margaret McGlathery was Peale’s mother in law), there lacks enough curiosity to attract viewers to peep into the sitter. Had Peale had focused on portraiture to make a living, he would still be remembered, but probably only as the son of Charles Willson Peale.
Jervis McEntee’s Summer Hills, Kauterskill Clove is a recent acquisition. (Two paintings, as one lot, were offered and sold by Sotheby’s last year although the other one is a much lesser painting.) In the picture, Sanford Gifford was sitting on the edge of the cliff enjoying the vista. The vastness of the valley is indicated by the strong contrast between the vibrant green from the middle ground and a more muted olive green from the mountains far away. The museum label shows a small image of the famous painting by Gifford on the same subject, currently displayed at the new American Wing at the Met – A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) is one of my favorite pictures. The two paintings seem to share the same vantage point, with different compositional perspectives. In the picture of Sanford, the dazzling sunlight takes the center stage and the cliff is just a small part of the nature’s echo to God’s silence. The small painting by McEntee, however, zooms into the reclining painter and the vista is left to the viewer’s imagination. Given this painting was painted five years after Gifford’s large canvas, perhaps the small gem is perhaps MeEntee’s homage to his friend in capturing the grandeur of American landscape.
A group of tonalism paintings caught Eric’s attention. Bruce Crane’s Autumn, Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania is a moody reflection of autumnal warmth. Charles Warren Eaton’s Moon Over Forest is mysterious, and poetic. What is painted is succinct and effective, and what is suggested seems to grow out of the small canvas and encroach one’s deep memory of some lonesome night. (This is the first time we spotted a work by Eaton on a major American art museum.) Nearby, Albert Pinkham Ryder borrowed the title “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” from a poem and surrounded his ghostly figure with disorientation and melancholy. I have not read the poem, but the picture is essentially stanzas of visual elements harmonized into a mystic narrative angle left to viewers’ own interpretation.
Tragedy at Sea by George Inness is the most captivating image of all the tonalism paintings exhibited in the galleries. A New York Times article dated on Feb 16, 1918 shows that the Edwin Barry Wilcox was the second owner for the prized painting, which, according to Elliott Daingerfiled, Inness’s student and early biographer, was the one in which the artist’s mind was most fully expressed. Mr. Wilcox refused to let the painting go even when receiving a full offer during his life time. And when it was sold to J. W. Young, only after his death, the painting broke a record for the artist. Mr. Young bought the painting for Joseph Butler Jr. in Youngstown, who was about to open a museum, designed by McKim Mead and White, to house his American art collection (only after his European collection was lost to a house fire).
How did the painting find its way from its original owner, Robert Crannell Minor, a noteworthy tonalism painter of his time to Birmingham, Alabama? I don’t know. Unlike the two late Inness paintings currently owned and exhibited at the Butler Institute of American Art, Tragedy at Sea, finished in 1864, breaks away from his other mid 1860’s panoramic picturesqueness with its emotive colors and fluent brushstrokes. The destructive power of fire and water clashing against each other reminds me of Turner, except Turner’s usage of transparent shimmering colors in capturing the ephemeral atmospheric effects gives away to Inness’ more somber, darker tonality and a directness that put viewers at the scene. The result, for me, is that the visual pleasure of Turner’s is replaced by the psychological anxiety when one is totally engulfed by the inevitability.
Even though regional interests are always worth time study, the section devoted to the art of Alabama didn’t engage me. Part of the reason is the lack of labels or multimedia to illustrate the regional characteristics in decorative arts. But how could I get my eyes attuned to the quirky dressing table, after seeing the naturalistic forms of a Narragansett pattern ladle by Gorham?
Mary Cassatt’s Portrait of an Elderly Lady in a Bonnet was an unfinished study for a portrait now in the National Gallery of Art. Its spontaneity in the brushstrokes and the intuitive usage of pink, red and black projects radiating vibrancy I much prefer to the finished one. It is interesting to compare the two and ask ourselves how our preference of artistic virtuosity has evolved through the 20th century.
Robert Henri’s The Laughing Boy has the same kind of immediacy. Like Frans Hals, from whom Henri was inspired, the artist has the magic to remove the self-consciousness and formality of his sitter and let the personality spill over the daring patches of paints. It is my favorite portrait in the whole collection.