Assembling this show while also reinstalling a quarter of a million square feet of exhibition space at the Martin was an incredible accomplishment, notes DAM director Christoph Heinrich. Timothy Standring, a curator emeritus with three decades of history with the museum, was called in; he'd been working for ten years on realizing an exhibit based on the idea that the lessons learned by American artists studying and working in France from the 1850s to the eve of World War I led to several aesthetic revolutions back here in the U.S. — and Whistler to Cassatt more than proves the accuracy of this notion.
The pieces in the show were borrowed from sources around the country and in Europe. Standring tapped some of the top art institutions, including Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he also scoured small and fairly obscure collections, among them Brigham Young University and Ball State University. “If I hadn’t traveled a hundred thousand miles before the pandemic, I could never have done it,” says Standring. Over the years, he points out, he'd forged personal relationships with many of his fellow curators; these connections proved critical to being able to assemble this exhibit.
The exhibit is installed on the second floor, in the cozy Martin and McCormick Gallery and the cavernous Anschutz Gallery. Projected onto a lobby wall outside the show’s entrance is a silent film with black-and-white footage of a moving sidewalk in Paris, taken by Thomas Edison at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. It looks as much like a steampunk fantasy as it does an artifact from the actual past.
The show begins with a major work that functions in an unusual way: as a coming attraction rather than the conceptual starting point of the story. In the majestic “Grand Prix Day,” Childe Hassam depicts grand carriages on a wide boulevard with a brushy realism; the painting is as French-looking as is imaginable, with Hassam clearly having gone completely native in the City of Light. Standring took a rigorous tack in assembling his checklist, choosing pieces by the artists that were created while they were physically in France. Although there are a few exceptions, this approach defied what I'd expected; I'd assumed the exhibit would feature the artists' later compositions that were French-inspired but done elsewhere.
The second crescendo — and the exhibit’s high point — is a facsimile of Galerie Durand-Ruel, with dark blue walls covered with darker blue stripes holding a full-blown Cassatt solo, with well over a dozen of the artist’s works. Standring says this display alone is worth the price of admission, and he's right. The spectacular selection of Cassatt paintings and pastels focuses on her signature subjects of women and children, rendered in the full-tilt impressionism that ensured her place among the greats of that renowned movement. The painting “Simone in a Blue Bonnet” is so sketchy and light, the young girl seems almost translucent. Also barely there are the pastel figures in “Sara and Her Mother with the Baby.” Both works are beautifully composed and, despite being asymmetrical, perfectly balanced. The more substantial “The Reader,” which shows a young woman reading a book, is so dazzlingly light-filled — with her white dress, the golden chair in which she sits, and the white-painted walls behind her — that the portrait practically vibrates with brightness.
Broadmoor Art Academy in the 1920s.
The Ten section subtly segues into the final space, devoted to the artists who began to embrace modernism. The surprise here is a small painting of a bridge — painted by Edward Hopper, of all people. At first glance, it looks very French, with the lyrical arcs of a bridge running across the composition, but when you look more closely, it’s completely Hopper-esque. The crisp rendering reveals Hopper’s signature precision in the application of his pigments, laid on in utterly smooth coats that inexplicably lend the picture a certain characteristic edginess.
Whistler to Cassatt is this fall’s big DAM attraction, and a fitting follow to the reopening of the full museum.
Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France opens Sunday, November 14, and runs through March 13 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway. For hours and tickets, go to denverartmuseum.org.