An art historian’s guide to masterpieces — without the crowds

  • “Posed Portraits” was the title Walker Evans gave this 1931 photograph of a short-order cook and his buddy taking a cigarette break in Depression-era New York. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Don’t be put off by the black-framed device that keeps Edouard Vuillard’s small painting from too much light inside the Smith College Museum of Art. Once you stand right before it, what appeared as a barrier now inadvertently adds to the theatricality of the picture it protects. Petegorsky / Gipe photo,Courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • The Four Times of Day, a series of engravings made by William Hogarth in 1738, depict the radical mingling of London’s populace — young and old, rich and poor, aristocrat and urchin — on the actual, and often squalid, streets and squares of a growing metropolis. Purchase with William W. Collins (Class of 1953) Print Fund and with Wise Fund for Fine Arts

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton visits the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. From left are works by Lyonel Feininger, Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso. Photo by Kevin Gutting. Design by Nicole J. Chotain. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton views "Dodo and Her Brother", 1908-1920, oil on canvas, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, on a visit to the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton visits the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton visits the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • "Interieur a L'Etang-la-Ville", 1893, oil on canvas, by Edouard Vuillard. Permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton visits the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. Behind her is "Dodo and Her Brother", 1908-1920, oil on canvas, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton visits the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. From left are works by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger, Fernand Leger, and Pablo Picasso. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Art historian Monica Strauss of Northampton views "Interieur a L'Etang-la-Ville," 1893, oil on canvas, by Edouard Vuillard, during a visit to the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

For Hampshire Life
Published: 7/12/2019 3:38:17 PM

Having moved to Northampton from Manhattan a year ago, I was delighted to see how many museums were situated right here in the Pioneer Valley.

And once I began to visit their permanent collections, I was struck by works of art on view that could have pride of place in any of New York’s museums. What continues to surprise me is the lack of visitors.

I often find myself wandering through the galleries entirely alone. So this is an art historian’s attempt to tell my neighbors about the pleasures I’ve discovered right around the corner.

A DRAMA AT THE DRESSMAKERS

Edouard Vuillard’s “The Suitor (interior with Work Table)” at the Smith College Museum of Art.

Don’t be put off by the black-framed device that keeps Edouard Vuillard’s small painting from too much light inside the Smith College Museum of Art. Once you stand right before it, what appeared as a barrier now inadvertently adds to the theatricality of the picture it protects. “The Suitor (Interior with Work Table)” was painted in 1893, the very year the 25-year-old French artist, together with two writer friends, launched a small avant-garde theater. Vuillard’s contribution was to design posters, programs and sets.

“The Suitor” depicts a drama taking place amid the trappings of domestic life, just as it does in the plays by Henrik Ibsen that Vuillard’s theater was first introducing to Paris.

Virginia Woolf’s description of the Norwegian playwright’s approach could also be applied to the work of the young artist: “A room is to him a room, a writing table, a writing table, and a waste paper basket. At the same time, the paraphernalia of reality have at times the veil through which we see infinity.”

When he was fifteen, Vuillard’s mother, newly widowed, began a dressmaking business in their home in Paris. The sorting and sewing of colorful fabrics, the comings and goings of seamstresses, became part of the artist’s life in the small apartment he shared with his family. This semi-private world of working women was the subject of many of Vuillard’s paintings in the early 1890s, and it provides the setting for “The Suitor.” A cluttered room is made to feel even more so by the patterned wallpapers so popular in turn-of-the-century interiors. Fabrics are everywhere — piled neatly atop an orange-cabinet, overflowing in a basket, spread out on a table. At an open window, bright sun fragments the air.

In this crowded space, two women are absorbed in their tasks. One of them, dressed in all black, leans out of the window to hang a white cloth to dry. The other, in the foreground, has her back to the viewer. The puffed sleeves of her black and yellow speckled dress appear to meld with the flecks of the wallpaper. As she pulls a blue cloth across a table, she looks up to see a bearded young man peering uneasily into the workroom.

What Vuillard was alluding to here was the engagement of his sister Marie to his closest friend, the painter Ker-Xavier Roussel. Instead of a portrait of the happy couple, the painter took the occasion to suggest the radical change of life that lies before them. Marie is shown as scarcely differentiated from the walls, the furniture and the fabrics that surround her. The suitor, on the other hand, makes his appearance through a door painted like a slash in the wall of her domain. Since we cannot see Marie’s face, we don’t know if she is pleased or frightened by this abrupt entry.

The tension created by this unresolved moment in the painting can leave the viewer uneasy. Surprise entrances are the stuff of theater, but the static nature of a picture does not allow for further information. Vuillard counteracts this discomfort by the weight he gives the setting. The excitement of the painting lies in the way he has deployed the rich mix of textures and patterns to express the as-yet-unknown drama of his sister’s future.

LOOKING THE SUBJECT IN THE EYE

Walker Evans Posed Portraits, 1931, at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum

“Posed Portraits” was the title Walker Evans gave his 1931 photograph of a short-order cook and his buddy taking a cigarette break in Depression-era New York. Hung on the wall behind them is the restaurant’s menu with the prices of sandwiches listed in descending order, from 25 to 10 cents. Evans’ choice of title for the photograph in the collection of the Mount Holyoke Art Museum is double-edged. On the one hand, it alludes to the tradition of commissioned portraits in which pose was intended to express status. On the other, it bestows on his two working-class subjects the respect that comes with self-representation.

Literature, not photography, had been Walker Evans’ first great passion. Born in St. Louis, in 1903, he attended Williams College for only two semesters before, like many American writers of the 1920s, he determined that Paris was the place to nurture his ambitions. However, once caught up in the ambiance of the great expat writers such as Joyce and Hemingway, he began to doubt his own literary skills. Returning to the States after 13 months abroad in 1927, he gradually found his calling in photography.

His first pictures betrayed the formalist aesthetic he had been exposed to in Europe. Images of skyscrapers were made abstract by the angle from which they were taken, billboards were truncated so that the words functioned as formal elements much as they do in Cubist paintings. When he began to photograph individuals, they were seen from a distance — a woman in a dashing hat caught in a crowd, tired office workers seen eating lunch through a restaurant window. Evans was the outsider taking notes, recording the random.

“Posed Portraits” was one of the first pictures in which Evans communicated with his subjects. The two men know they are being photographed. The cook, displaying his apron with aplomb and wearing his cap at a rakish angle, has no qualms about the marks of his profession. His direct gaze, the thrust of his hip, his easy embrace speak of someone at home in his world. Though the expression on the other man’s face shows some hesitancy about being observed, his posture is one of comfort in his connection to his friend. The careful calibration of the setting gives the two further significance with the single lone bulb hanging just above the cook and the elevation of the staircase placing the pair as if on stage.

It would be several years before Evans put his mind to portraits again. In 1936, on assignment for Fortune Magazine, he accompanied the writer James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, to record the subsistence life of the sharecroppers there. Evans’ sensitive recordings of the plight of the three families he got to know (eventually published as part of James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”), expand on that same concern for human dignity first on display in his “Posed Portraits.”

THE CITY AWAKES

William Hogarth’s “Morning,” 1738, at The Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

The Four Times of Day, a series of engravings made by William Hogarth in 1738, offer as vivid a view of life in 18th-century London as any conjured up by the artist’s brilliant literary contemporaries such as Jonathan Swift or Henry Fielding. All four engravings — “Morning,” “Noon,” “Evening” and “Night” — are part of the permanent collection of The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. What they depict is the radical mingling of London’s populace — young and old, rich and poor, aristocrat and urchin — on the actual, and often squalid, streets and squares of a growing metropolis.

A detailed look at “Morning” will give a sense of how Hogarth draws the viewer in. He makes sure to mark the hour with a sky just emerging from darkness and a clock nearing 7 a.m. It is winter. Smoke rises from chimneys, rooftops are covered in ice, outdoor fires are improvised. This particular “morning” dawns in the square before the Covent Garden theater. Townhouses cluster on one side and the classical facade of the Church of Saint Paul dominates the other.

Despite the early hour and freezing weather, there is activity everywhere. Entering on one side is a market woman balancing her basket of produce on her head. The lantern hanging from her shoulder is still lit as she pauses to join a crowd listening to a quack doctor extolling the virtues of his tonics. Equally absorbed are two boys on the way to school, satchels on their backs.

At the center of the square, a well-dressed woman heads for the church. Her servant, still a child, holds her prayer book under his arm while trying to warm his hands in his waistcoat and pocket. His mistress puts her fan to her lips in a gesture of disapproval as she approaches a rowdy group that appears to be in her way.

Although Covent Garden was most well known as London’s central market place, it was also the location of some of the city’s dicier institutions. The smaller structure before the church is identified as “Tom King’s Coffee House.” This watering hole was famous for opening after the other disreputable gathering places had closed for the night. The source of the church-goer’s disapproval is the two well-dressed gentlemen who have emerged from a squabble within the coffee house’s doorway. (Staves are being brandished and a wig has been sent flying.) Still amorously entangled with their ladies of the night, they take no notice of the fracas behind them. Equally ignored by the lusty group is the pain of existence confronting others. Close by, a market woman seeks warmth in a fire and a lone hag extends a begging hand.

In Hogarth’s time, it was unusual for depictions of the times of the day to do without allegorical figures enhancing their meaning. Enlightenment artist though he was, Hogarth did not leave them out. In this series, he just had them take up less room or wear a disguise. Above the clock, there is a small figure of Father Time and barely visible below the timepiece is the Latin phrase Sic transit gloria mundi. (So pass the glories of the earth.) And that elegant lady at the center of the teeming life on the square, might she be Aurora, the goddess of Dawn?

Monica Strauss is an art historian and cultural journalist. She lives in Northampton.




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