Review of Denver Art Museum’s “Whistler to Cassatt” impressionist exhibit
Would-be blockbusters like the Denver Art Museum’s new “Whistler to Cassatt” don’t distinguish themselves from one another through the quality of work on display. Like all of the retrospectives of late 19th century art that routinely pump up crowds and ticket sales at museums these days, it’s overloaded with magnificent paintings by important names.
But these special exhibits can be evaluated on the skill of the upcycling, the way objects from this precious, Impressionism-fueled era are put together by a curator and packaged so that, once again, they feel exciting and new enough to that customers will pay to visit them.
And just when you think you have seen everything — and every theme — used up, and there are no more good ideas to wring from the period, a show like “Whistler to Cassatt” comes along. It has just enough of a hook to keep things interesting.
The subtitle says it all, if a bit broadly: “American Painters in France.” The exhibit’s intention is to teach a colorful lesson on how time spent in the land where Monet and Degas reigned influenced the work of painters from this country. The show is a marketing twofer, combining the nationalist appeal of “American” art with the irresistible exoticism of “France” at the height of its artistic power.
Curator Timothy Standring, who has produced so many memorable exhibitions for DAM, knows this subject matter better than anyone. He has also learned how to put on a show, organizing this exhibition into thematic chapters, rather than chronologically, so he can distribute big thrills evenly along the way.
He revs things up with a bang, starting with a large gallery jammed full of double-decker paintings meant to evoke the Paris Salon, the annual show where scores of artists presented their work to the public and to critics, and where reputations could be made.
Visitors entering the exhibition find themselves drowning in floor-to-ceiling high art — works by Mary Cassatt, James McNeil Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Childe Hassam and many others.
Purists might be put off by the mix-and-match of painters and periods and techniques; it’s just one of the places where the show crams together “classicism, realism, tonalism, impressionism and hybrids of each,” as the exhibition materials note, without clear delineations. From an academic standpoint, it’s a bit of a jumble and not the way scholarly art exhibitions have traditionally been organized.
But it works just fine in this era of immersive art, when visitors have come to expect the sensory overload of digital, light-up Van Gogh exhibitions and otherworldly “art” funhouses like Meow Wolf. This Paris Salon at DAM is all-consuming, but with the credibility of having actual masterworks on the walls.
From there, the tour tones it down a bit by offering actual information about the development of painters and painting, about the role of art schools and the emergence of individualism and new forms of expression. It’s that familiar story of Impressionism and how painters of the period broke free of convention, loosening brush strokes, capturing the essence of the natural world, taking on more democratic subject matter.
But the lens is bicontinental, talking about how ideas were imported, exported and traded back and forth. Americans pushed their way into the exciting action that was taking place in Paris and the world was better for it.
As expected, the exhibition has a significant display of works by Whistler, focusing on seascapes painted in places like Marseille, but also including other gems that show his versatility, such as the portrait of “Mother Gerard” he painted in France in 1858.
There are nearly 20 works in the section of the exhibition showcasing Cassatt, and they are equally expected with all of them focusing on women and/or children as subject matter. Fans of the painter, who succeeded despite the limitations on female artists of her day, will get their fill.
The show also spotlights Sargent in particular, with a small sampling of works that display his depth as a painter. There are the portraits he is best-known for, but also the journalistic postcards he painted of real people doing real things, like a group of beachgoers “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale” or a team of “Fisherwomen Returning” from their work at sea.
If you go
“Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France” continues through Feb. 13 at the Denver Art Museum. It requires a special ticket, so check the website for details and to make reservations. Info: 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.
“Whistler to Cassatt” actually has more than 100 paintings in total and that means the majority of them are not by the stars in its marquee. They come with varied renown, ranging from names many people may know (such as Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase) to some they may not, such as John Henry Twachtman, Joseph Rodefer De Camp and Frank Weston Benson.
There also is a section devoted to American female painters Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Cecilia Beaux, Lilla Cabot Perry and Elizabeth Nourse — all of whom many viewers will meet for the first time.
The show closes out with a section highlighting the group of artists who came to be known as The Ten, and who returned to the United States after their time in France and brought back with them a freer style of art-making that wasn’t so well-received by domestic audiences of the day. They stuck together, exhibiting as an ensemble, and helped usher in a new era in American art.
“Whistler to Cassatt” is a whistle-stop tour, of course, but it succeeds by framing a crucial moment in art history, both in France where painting was king and in the U.S., where up-and-coming artists were very eager to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and enter the kingdom. It might have been a trendy thing to do at the time, but it ended up influencing the century of American art that followed.
And while the exhbition puts Whistler and Cassatt in its signage, it doesn’t really qualify as either a Whistler show nor a Cassatt show — its keeps its focus on the movement, documenting it with one example after another of excellent painting by many different American painters, gathered from museums and collections near and far.
That elevates it above those blockbusters (that we have seen too many of) that focus solely on a particular superstar artist, such as van Gogh or Monet, or takes on a single subject matter, such as portraiture, or landscapes or flowers.
“Whistler to Cassatt” actually has something to show us, a little history lesson that is interesting to walk through. It manages, against all odds, to feel fresh.
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