When the Denver Art Museum doubled its exhibition space in 2006 by building the Frederic C. Hamilton wing across the street from its iconic Gio Ponti tower, the idea was to use the new building for temporary exhibits — in particular, big blockbusters. A lot of people, especially art writers, don't like the idea of blockbusters, because they involve a necessarily "safe" topical choice in order to be popular. But as a pragmatist, I know that these popular shows are essential for the museum's survival, as they attract audiences beyond the normal museum-going crowd. For that reason, I like them.
Put the right formula together, and the blockbuster will draw everyone from tourists to people living in the suburbs — and in so doing, stuff the museum's coffers with ticket receipts, gift-shop proceeds and new membership dues. And I'm not going out on much of a limb by saying that the current three-shows-in-one, Passport to Paris — which runs through the holidays — has that formula.
Part of the show is on the ground floor, but I think it makes sense to begin your tour on the second level, where Court to Cafe is installed in the Anschutz Gallery. This is because Court to Cafe has a greater historic sweep than the downstairs display, and also because it's traditional to keep something great in reserve for later.
Denver Art Museum
Through February 9 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.
Court to Cafe is a seriously reinterpreted version of a traveling show called Masters of French Art, which comes from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut. The Denver version, overseen by Angelica Daneo, the DAM's associate curator of painting and sculpture, has an imposed historic structure that guided her selections and is indicated by the title. In a series of galleries, Daneo lays out the development of France through its art, from the time of kings and queens to the French Revolution and its aftermath to the rise of Paris as a modern city. Daneo accomplishes this by setting up separate presentations dedicated to different historic phases as illustrated by the paintings done at those times. She has supplemented the paintings with choice examples of decorative art — including a sedan chair — and has even included a couple of costumes, all of which reinforces her narrative.
In the entry space, Daneo has hung one of the stars of the collection, Monet's sumptuous seaside view, "The Beach at Trouville," an early example of the artist's signature impressionism. The exhibit starts beyond that, with a roughly chronological walk through three centuries, beginning with work from the seventeenth and eighteenth in a large room that's been finished off as though it were in a palace, complete with crystal chandeliers. This is when the royals sat on their thrones and their tastes ran to the grandiose; a number of these paintings are heavy with allegory, like Nicolas Poussin's dark "The Crucifixion" and Claude Lorrain's "Landscape With Saint George and the Dragon." At the time, French art was not yet the leading tradition in Europe; that would start to happen as the eighteenth century wore on.
The next room also features work from the aristocratic period, with the French Revolution happening in 1789. There's a more urbane and cosmopolitan feeling here, and the focus is on the grand townhouses of Paris. Among the standouts are Jean-Baptiste Greuze's "Indolence," which depicts a lazy Italian girl, and the theatrical — and breathtaking — "The Storm," by Claude-Joseph Vernet.
The tumultuous nineteenth century is the subject of a series of succeeding spaces, and it's the work of this era that established Paris as the capital of the international art world. There's the period of the building of modern Paris, with imperial tastes being reflected by that portrait by Ingres or that idyllic family scene depicted by Bouguereau. Then it all starts coming together in France, and during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, one master after another emerges in the advent of modern art. These include realists such as Rousseau and Manet, impressionists like the aforementioned Monet, and the rest of the cast, as well as post-impressionists, with Court to Cafe even including a van Gogh self-portrait. Daneo hit a home run with this one, but then again, how can you go wrong with a series of rooms that culminates with the rise of impressionism and post-impressionism? Who can't appreciate that stuff?
Across the landing, in the Martin and McCormick Gallery, is Drawing Room, another element of Passport to Paris. This show was also curated by Daneo, and she drew from the collection of Esmond Bradley Martin, which is on long-term loan to the DAM but has never been exhibited before in a coherent group. Martin, who lives in Kenya, has been collecting for fifty years, and the show covers much of the same ground as Court to Cafe, but it includes material that isn't French, like some prized old Italian pieces. The display is intimate, and given the fragile nature of works on paper, the gallery is very dark. It's the perfect chaser for Court to Cafe.
The Passport to Paris topper — Nature as Muse, in the Gallagher Family Gallery — is back on level one. This homegrown leg of the series was curated by DAM director Christoph Heinrich, who is not only the visionary behind bundling these three exhibits, but, as he's proved over and over, a curator at heart. To organize this show, Heinrich mined the rich vein of impressionism that's in the museum's permanent collection and supplemented it with selections from the collection of Frederic C. Hamilton, for whom the wing is named. These Hamilton paintings have, for the most part, not been exhibited in public in anyone's memory.
The show includes one beautiful painting after another. It starts with the foundational work of realists such as Corot and Courbet and quickly shifts to the pioneering work of the impressionists, including Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. And there's a section devoted to American followers of the French-based movement, including a stunning John Twachtman. All of these artists have done marvelous landscapes, but Monet is the undeniable star of Nature as Muse, with many of his paintings included. In fact, there are eleven Monets in Passport to Paris — an unprecedented number for Denver — and eight of them are paintings, with all but two of those in Nature as Muse.
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Of course, all of the Monets are worth looking at, but some are just over the top and remind us of why he was so key to the later development of abstraction. "Fishing Boats" is really something, with the line of colorfully painted boats beached on the shoreline. The technique is spectacular, with each pictorial element containing a dense mass of short, heavily paint-laden brushstrokes. The DAM's masterpiece, "Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect," has been exhibited frequently over the years, but in the context of all these other Monets, its character as a masterwork is very apparent. The bridge is a purple apparition running across the middle of the picture, with the lighter sky and water bracketing it at the top and bottom. Attempting to capture mist in paint, Monet allows the bridge, the river and the town beyond it to disintegrate in a sea of tiny marks and gestures. If you don't like this painting, maybe painting isn't your thing.
When I went through Passport to Paris last week, the place was mobbed. Then again, the DAM knows that it's easy to attract a crowd when you put the word "Paris" in an exhibition's title.
Passport to Paris