Art News

Whistler to Cassatt Is a True Tour de Force at the Denver Art Museum

"Sara and Her Mother with the Baby" by Mary Cassatt in Whistler to Cassatt.
"Sara and Her Mother with the Baby" by Mary Cassatt in Whistler to Cassatt. courtesy Drs. Tobia and Morton Mower
After last month's acclaimed unveiling of the restored Martin Building, long known as the Gio Ponti tower, the Denver Art Museum is now focusing attention on the Hamilton Building with the opening of the blockbuster Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France. The ambitious project includes more than a hundred works, showcasing some of the biggest names in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American art, who traveled to Europe to learn the lingua franca of the visual arts of that time: French, of course.

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.
click to enlarge Cecilia Beaux's "Standing Male Figure" (left) and Alexander Harrison in Whistler to Cassatt at the Denver Art Museum. - ROBERT DELANEY
Cecilia Beaux's "Standing Male Figure" (left) and Alexander Harrison in Whistler to Cassatt at the Denver Art Museum.
Robert Delaney
Back in the 1990s, Standring was a national pioneer in organizing historical shows such as this one, working along thematic rather than chronological lines so that the narrative content of specific works took precedence over the particular style of the pieces. But when I mention this to Standring, he disagrees, saying that instead, “I was a disruptor of the thematic approach.” Given that, it’s no surprise that he would come up with a hybrid method for Whistler to Cassatt. The overriding thrust reflects the procession of French-derived styles in the time frame, even if Standring still occasionally associates works thematically.

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.
click to enlarge James Abbott McNeill Whistler's "The Beach at Marseille." - TERRA FOUNDATION FOR AMERICAN ART
James Abbott McNeill Whistler's "The Beach at Marseille."
Terra Foundation for American Art
Standring explains that American artists wanted to go to France because of its art infrastructure, including not only the official and private academies, but individual mentor artists who offered instruction. Their teaching methods were traditional, with students charged with copying paintings, as shown by James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s gorgeous rendition of “Roger delivrant Angelique” by Ingres, or drawing antiquities, such as the John Singer Sargent depiction of a Roman plinth. (There are so many wonderful Sargents in the exhibit that he could easily have been name-checked in the title alongside Whistler and Cassatt.) The artists could then translate the skills they'd learned into their own works, as Cecilia Beaux does when she turns a friend into a Greek sculpture in the very erotic “Standing Male Figure.” Successfully completing these technical lessons could lead to an artist’s acceptance in the important salon exhibitions, which brought with them interest from collectors, dealers, curators and critics — thus credentialing an artist back in America’s galleries, money in the bank.
click to enlarge Salon hanging in Whistler to Cassatt. - ROBERT DELANEY
Salon hanging in Whistler to Cassatt.
Robert Delaney
The first of several crescendos comes with an imagined version of a corner of one of these salons, where the paintings hang above each other on a pair of vividly painted red walls. The selection, including pieces by Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Irving Couse, Frank Boggs and others, is a show-stopper. The show then moves on to several tangents, such as “Countryside Excursions” and “Around the Table,” with a number of little treasures, among them atmospheric landscapes by Whistler, Winslow Homer, John Twachtman and Theodore Robinson, whose smeary “The Old Mill in Moonlight, Giverny” knocks on the door of abstraction. Also choice is the series of small works depicting oyster gatherers by Sargent: These are beautifully done, expressionistically realist but on the verge of impressionism, with the artist seemingly having slapped the paint onto the canvas in a frenzy of brushwork.

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.
click to enlarge Mary Cassatt works in the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Whistler to Cassatt. - ROBERT DELANEY
Mary Cassatt works in the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Whistler to Cassatt.
Robert Delaney
Serving as something of a finale are the galleries dedicated to The Ten, which Standring positions as an American version of the salon system. It was originally founded in opposition to the conservativism of the American Academy of the Fine Arts, which was hostile to the impressionism that the members of The Ten had embraced. Several of these artists appear earlier in the show, but here they are given star treatment. The striking “Three Sisters-a Study in June Sunlight,” in which Edward Tarbell captures three women seated in a garden, almost glows. Robert Reid’s sinuous female nude with a lute, “La Cigale,” is more subtle but equally appealing. Interestingly, Reid has a Colorado connection, having taught at the 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.


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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia