Situated north of downtown San Antonio along the famous River Walk, the San Antonio Museum of Art is housed in the historic Lone Star Brewery building complex. From the outside, the complex lacks the grandeur of Beaux-Arts facades. Multi-floored, with a subdued sun-fade yellow, the brick buildings give the feeling of a genteel southern living in a marriage with trendy industrial lofts. Even though the city is the seventh most populous city in the United States and the second largest in the state of Texas, the depth of breadth of the entire collections will stun anyone who only associates the city with its NBA team or the river walk.
Its small American art collection spans from the colonial era to modernism with a strength in the 19th Century portraiture. The unexpected large presence of human faces struck me to digest the fact that a Texas art institute, not too far away from the Alamo mission, braves artworks beyond the Jacksonian period and seek no particular focus in Texas or western art.
If the sitter matters, William Dunlap’s Washington portrait has its immediate appeal. Yet the rather crude portrait does not carry the kind of subtlety and vivacity quintessential in Stuart’s Athenaeum. The fully illuminated head sits inanimately on a formless neck and Dunlap’s quick and heavy hands show no interest in the interior setting or clothing, which are reduced into simple geometry with colors as the after thoughts. Yet the result is still intriguing; he is not in the same caliber as Stuart, but that cannot overthrow his sincerity in projecting a convincing familiar likeness.
Charles Willson Peale’s half length portraits of the De Peysters demonstrate the artist’s supreme power in easing the unflattering truth with a sympathetic touch of humanity. Both radiate charms and amicability that is more often associated with Ralph Earl. The couple, seated and illuminated from the light above, emerge from the dark with a convincing roundness. Ann De Peyster is particularly interesting. Moles, bumps and wrinkles are depicted with relentless accuracy and hence drawing viewers into her eyes. If the smiles from her slightly lifted mouth corners are not exactly discernable, her rosy complexion and relaxed gesture speak of contention and confidence of bourgeois class of a young nation.
Two full length portraits from the later period carry the theme to other walls of the gallery.
John Singer Sargent’s Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt was painted in 1888. Sargent painted her daughter Alice Vanderbilt Shepard in the same year, but in a much smaller scale. (It is shown at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.) The red color of her dress is so vibrant that it seem to bleed through the canvas. Unlike the previous portraits, Sargent utilized the succinct interior setting not only to balance the composition and enrich the textures, but also to compliment the sitter with a materialized aristocratic elegance. A French empire center table with a marble top is painted next to her. The gradation of reflected colors at the rim of the table top addressed onto different materials (metal, wood and marble) is a tour de force of Sargent’s remarkable technical facility.
Robert Henri’s El Tango was painted two decades later. The large portrait is squeezed into the narrow walkway that makes one hard to fully appreciate the total effect. The famed dancer, Manoleta Mareques had no difficulty in looking directly with viewers and mesmerizing them with her big smile. Both artists have favored the direct and vigorous handling of paint, yet they were far apart with the final impression. While Sargent’s Vanderbilt is confined within her refined luxury and social protocol, Henri’s dancer seems to be able to step out of the canvas at any moment. With her upper body twisted, left foot forward and hat tilted, she is as lively as the bright paint that was jauntily dashed against the dark background. If Sargent’s society portrait is miraculous in its technicality, Henri’s tango dancer reaches viewers deeper with her affable and outward personality. Humanity truly shines when the symbolism of who she is gives in to the expression of what she is.