Museum shares works of Americans in France

Paintings from 1855-1913 on display at Denver Art Museum

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“Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France,” now open at the Denver Art Museum through March 13, includes more than 100 paintings created between 1855 and 1913 by American painters, some who studied in official and private academies and some who roamed the city and countryside, painting images.

In preceding years, according to Curator Emeritus Timothy Standring, there was a focus on how paintings were done, consideration of the academic technique of the work, but by the period covered, concern had moved to what the painting said about a subject. Controversy still existed over what was most important in a work of art ... (As it does today!)

This exhibit is an absolute pleasure to contemplate for the lush colors in art that pop against deeply toned walls. Take a deep breath and start walking. Art is hung “salon style,” with a mix of sizes and subjects rather than with all in a neat row. “Do you know how brave it is to tell lenders that work will be hung salon style?” Standring commented.

At the turn of the century, Paris was the center of the art world and acceptance in the Salon (started in 1775) was a goal for artists from France, America and elsewhere.

James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt were among the Americans who arrived to study.

Cassatt, who was 21 when she arrived in Paris, had particular challenges as women were not accepted to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Artes, nor allowed to socialize in cafes where male artists gathered. But her introductory portfolio was so accomplished that she was accepted in the atelier of Jean-Leon Gerome and supplemented her studies by making copies of masterworks at the Louvre, which she could sell. We are told that she formed a close friendship with painter Edgar Degas.

Other American women artists with works exhibited include Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Cecelia Beaux, Lila Cabot Perry and Elizabeth Nourse.

Standring commented that it has taken 10 years to get this show together. “It becomes more and more difficult to stage a major loan show, with shipping and couriers.” The museum staff has worked steadily on the project.

“Americans could have gone to Dusseldorf, Rome, London,” Standring said as he started his press tour comments. But Paris won their initial interest and they spread out into the picturesque countryside as well.

There are 18 paintings by Cassatt, who did have work accepted/exhibited in the Salon. Included are early works, such as “The Mandolin Player” (1868) and “Mother and Child” (1889), which Standring considers to be her finest work.

A gallery is dedicated to Whistler, illustrating his many different approaches to painting. He began his time in France with study in the atelier of Swiss-born artist Charles Gleyre and works exhibited here include “The Coast of Brittany (Alone With the Tide)” (1861), “Blue and Silver, Dieppe,” (1880-85), “The Sea, Pourville” (1899) and “The Beach at Marseilles” (1901).

Sargent’s paintings are important to the period and this exhibit shows preliminary studies he painted prior to completing the well-known “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale” (1877). We have in recent years enjoyed a major exhibit of Sargent’s works at the Denver Art Museum, but it’s good to recognize his involvement with these other painters as well. It was a rich period that carried through in subsequent examples of American art.

An American group, known as “The Ten,” included William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, Frank Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas D. Ewing and Robert Lewis Reid. Their work was not immediately met with enthusiasm in America, but they persisted.

A second wave of American artists also included in this large exhibit were members of a group called “The Eight” (1907) and included Robert Henri, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies and Arthur Dove.

For visitors who want to know more, there is a beautiful large (200-page) catalog, which visitors may want to consider purchasing (but not carry around while enjoying the exhibit!).

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