Clark Museum Impressionists at the Kimbell (with notes about looking)

My wife and I visited the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute many times during the seven years we lived up in Boston. It was a long drive to the other side of the state (Williamstown is on the New York border), but the drive was pleasant and the destination was more than worth the effort. I’ll admit that one of the things we liked so much was the museum itself — in other words, we might have made the drive at least once or twice even if the collection weren’t so stellar. But it was, and is. And while it’s also rich and diverse, it centers on the impressionists, so we were pleased when we heard last year that some of the masterpieces were coming to Texas. As usual, I procrastinated to the end, but we made it over to Fort Worth today (Father’s Day, 6/17/12) for the last day of the exhibit of impressionists from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I’m so very glad we went.

The exhibit was really well presented. It consisted not just of bona fide impressionist paintings but, helpfully, included before and after galleries, with the first room of the exhibit showing the late classical style against which the impressionists were rebelling, and one of the last rooms before the gift shop presenting a small gallery of post-impressionist paintings (including one lovely Gaugin, shown below) to give you a sense of what happened afterwards.

Gaugin: Young Christian Girl

They did not mention the role of photography in pushing painting in a direction that explored ways of seeing the world with which photography could not compete. There was an exhibit at the Dallas MFA that explored this subject in a limited way in 2010.

Anyway, the main galleries of this Kimbell exhibit were devoted to the major league impressionists including Monet, Manet, Degas, Pisarro, Berthe Morisot, and, of course, Renoir. It was one beauty after another.

A number of the paintings were familiar, not because I remembered them from the Clark Museum (I haven’t been there in decades) but because, well, they’re just so famous, like Degas’s “Dancers in the Classroom.”

Edgar Degas: Dancers in a Classroom

One of the many things I like about this painting is the width of the canvas, what in photography we call the “aspect ratio”. The painting’s 9:4 ratio is even wider than the 16:9 aspect ratio that I shoot in frequently. I too like wider images and I only wish it were a little easier for me to print them and less costly to frame them. Anyway, the painting makes exciting use of the wide view by introducing that corner just right of the middle. This corner gives the studio in the background more depth than we can see. It lets us see dancers sitting in the foreground on the right, and dancers at the barre in the background on the left, and that one dancer with the colored fan right in the middle tying everything together.

I suspect that I actually love more of Degas’ paintings — I’m partial to some of Degas’ subjects (dancers and the theater, horses) — but it’s pretty clear to me that Renoir was an even greater painter in terms of scope and technique, and while some of the Renoirs in the exhibit inspired admiration but not affection, several really knocked me out. One of my favorites was this Renoir portrait of Mme Monet (the first wife of the painter):

The legend on the wall next to the painting explained that she’s reading a novel.

How to start looking at an image

Have you ever wondered what to do at an art museum or for that matter at a photographic exhibit? I think a lot of people go from painting to painting saying to themselves, That’s pretty! Others walk around with those canned lectures hanging around their neck. If that works for you, great. But if the art’s any good, I urge you to experience it on your own, at least initially. Here’s what I like to do. I used to recommend this approach to my students. If you are already an art expert, you don’t need my advice. If you aren’t, here’s what I suggest.

Stroll through slowly and spend a respectful few seconds in front of each item, but don’t linger at first. And don’t feel bound to formulate judgments, in fact you probably shouldn’t. You certainly shouldn’t allow yourself to be bullied by the curator or whoever picked the pieces exhibited into saying to yourself, “Oh, yes, this is a great work.” It might not be. Doesn’t matter. Stroll through until something grabs you. Then stop and look hard at it until you’ve really taken it in.

Looking hard at a painting (or photograph) means, at a minimum, looking at it attentively until you can close your eyes and describe it for yourself in some detail. When I say “describe,” I mean just that and nothing more. This is very superficial. Don’t worry about symbolism or significance (like the link between the yellow tunic of the Gaugin girl pictured above and the natives he had seen in Tahiti). If there’s a legend next to the work that tells you something interest, fine. But the first and most important thing is to see what is in front of you. This applies equally well for photographs and for paintings.

You can’t do this very well for very many images in one visit to the gallery or museum, at least I can’t. I reckon I could vaguely remember a couple dozen paintings that I saw this afternoon, and that if I saw another dozen or two I’d remember, Oh, yeah, we saw that. This isn’t a test. You do what you can. In a big show like the one we saw today, I glance at a lot of the paintings quickly, so I can spend more time with a few, and so that I can spend serious time with two or three. I’m not great at this, and that’s about my limit. For me today, the two that I spent the most time looking at — the two I’ll remember most clearly — were “Girl Sleeping” (1890) and “Onions” (1891).

Here for example is what I remember about the painting “Sleeping Girl.” You’ll have to trust me but I’m not peeking; this is what I remember of a painting I looked hard at about 10 hours ago.

  • The painting shows a girl asleep in a chair with a sleeping cat in her lap.
  • The chair is reddish velvet and has upholstery buttons, two of which are visible above her on the right and two more of which are visible below her on the left. Only one leg of the chair is visible, on the near right (that is, the front left leg of the chair). The chair does not have very obvious arms and is in other respects fairly plain, although it looks like something you’d see in a fancy parlor.
  • The girl on the other hand does not look fancy or high class — more like a servant.
  • She’s wearing a blue dress that has a wide darker blue band just above the hem. The bodice of the dress is white and loosely gathered; it’s falling off her arm on the right side of the painting. The girl is wearing blue shoes with dark buckles or perhaps bows. She is wearing white stocking with blue stripes; three stripes are visible on her right left (painting left), two stripes on her left leg (painting right). The back of her dress behind her on the left hangs a little lower than the front. Her feet are both pointing left and down.
  • Her head is tilted to the painting’s left. Her eyebrows are raised crescents, and her closed eyelids and eyelashes make pair of lowered crescents that match the eyebrows like a couple of pairs of sideways parentheses. Her left ear is visible but not her right. Hmm. I can’t remember her hair. I think it was brown.
  • She’s wearing a hat, blue like her dress, also with a wide blue band. On the right side of the hat (painting’s right) there’s a beautiful if indistinct profusion of flowers. The hat is tilted back a little on her head and we can see the inside brim of the hat on the left side.
  • The girl’s right hand (on the left side) is drooping down gracefully; her left hand is turned upwards.
  • The front paws of the cat in her lap seem to be placed like the girl’s hands: the cat’s right paw is placed between the the thumb and fingers of the girl’s left hand, and the cat’s front left paw is drooping gracefully over the girl’s left arm. The cat’s eyes are closed, both ears visible and pointed up. The cat is oddly bluish, in fact, when I first glanced at the painting I didn’t see the cat at all for a second or two. The cat’s weight creates a small fold in the girl’s dress and perhaps accentuates the presence of her knees, which are pointed to the left of the painting.
  • The background is plain, no other furniture, no window or rug or potted plant. The line where the floor meets the wall (behind the sleeping girl) is not quite level, which strikes me as a bit odd. The wall is very textured and dark but kind of bluish, harmonizing with the color of the girl. The floor is textured and kind of reddish-brownish, harmonizing with the chair.
  • As I imagine looking at the painting, the principal light source seems to be up and off to the right a goodish bit. There’s a pool of light in the lower left corner of the painting.

This is not a parlor trick and I’m not showing off, although I do want to be very honest and say that I am pleased when I can remember something I’ve looked at this well. It is very enjoyable to get a great painting or photograph into your head like this. What’s in your head doesn’t replace the experience of seeing the painting or photograph again before your eyes. But memory is a way of looking, too.

I can’t do this for very many paintings, and in a week or two I won’t be able to do it for this one, either, probably. I don’t know much about Renoir and almost nothing about this painting other than what the plaque on the wall said, which is that it was painted in 1890 and the girl was some notorious tart from Montmartre with lots of lovers, so the painting was regarded as pretty steamy. I’m sure that I’m missing at least half of what there is to see in the painting — and remember, this one’s simple. I just want to demonstrate — since I know that many people don’t know how to do this — what it means to look at something.

So, let’s see, not how good or bad my memory is, but rather, how well I looked at the painting. Here’s the picture, as found on The Athenaeum online:

Renoir, Sleeping Girl

What you can’t tell from the digital image is how large the painting is. I think it was about 4 ft tall. But you can see how beautiful it is. I’m not at all sure why this one struck such a chord with me. Doesn’t matter. It did.

I’m not going to bother to check my description. Now that I have the image in front of me again — even this tiny little JPEG — I can see dozens of details I forgot or didn’t remember quite correctly. I’ll have to look at it some more. But the goal is to remember the image the way you might remember a piece of music. How do you do it? It’s not just a matter of looking at it long enough, well, if you have a so-called photographic memory, that might do it. I have to look, then look away or close my eyes and describe for myself what I saw. I keep doing this until I wear myself out or until I feel I’ve absorbed as much as I can absorb. That’s what happened with me this afternoon. After ten or fifteen minutes, I’d gotten all I could get. I only regret that I can’t go back next weekend to see it again. Memo to self: Next time Renoir is in town, don’t go on the last day.

Finally, my other favorite and the other painting I spent time studying, without comment: Renoir’s “Onions”. It was painted in Venice in 1891, a year later than the Sleeping Girl.

Renoir: Onions (Kimbell/Sterling Clark)

Okay, I’ll add just one comment that I got from the legend next to the painting at the Kimbell. Apparently this was Sterling Clark’s favorite Renoir. It doesn’t have to be yours. But don’t jump to the conclusion that he must have been crazy until you’ve looked at it for a while.

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