Crocker Art Museum dedicates three exhibitions to plein-air painters and impressionists here and across the pond
Sacramento, CA 95814
Imagine the bliss of living in an impressionist world: Comfy, fuzzed, vibrant, full of primary colors, where no shadow is ever black and, as with lingerie, the imagination deliciously fills in the missing elements. Actually, for those who are nearsighted, jumping into a Claude Monet painting is easy. Just yank out the contacts or take off the spectacles. And if not plagued with permanent eye issues, the doors of perception can be kicked wide open with any number of chemical and organic compounds that will transform a Sacramento sidewalk into Vinnie van Gogh’s irises or his swirling, crow-infested wheat field.
No reason to go to such lengths, however. The Crocker Art Museum has taken care of everything. This is the “Summer of Impressionism” at “alta” California’s grandest art museum. What’s most enjoyable is that from disparate sources—chiefly the Brooklyn Museum and Bank of America—some 140 or so paintings trace the evolution of impressionism from its French roots to its transmogrification by us Yanks.
Across the pond it’s the same brusque and chunky brush strokes, but a way different sensibility. And while the museum doesn’t stress this, there’s a room on the third floor, all day, every day, chockablock with California impressionists. It would be the definition of a damn shame not to check out the French and their progenitors, plus the American take on their trip, and not walk down the hall and bask in the Golden State’s riff on the whole deal. Go once. Go twice. Go thrice. The exhibition runs through mid-September.
Another exhibition, Gardens and Grandeur: Porcelains and Paintings by Franz Bischoff, opens Saturday. So gifted was this native of Bohemia at floral porcelain decorations his nickname was “King of the Rose Painters.” So naturally, when he immigrated to California, he settled in—talk about kismet—Pasadena. When he came to California in 1906, Bischoff started oil painting on canvas. Not just roses, although the painting of a vase and basket of same set off by a brilliant Prussian blue tablecloth and busy orange-heavy tapestry is amazing. And the samples of porcelain featuring roses are even more stunning.
Bischoff, who died in 1929, also painted the Carmel coast and Monterey. And here’s why taking a gander at the permanent collection of California impressionists pays off: There are two other renderings of Carmel and Monterey. The Carmel coast of John O’Shea is tight, dark, full of browns and dark blue sea. The Monterey Bay of Bruce Nelson is more expansive, with lighter rocks and shades of green that carry through to the white caps in the bay. Whether it’s Emerald Cove or mountain bathers, Bischoff tends more toward the O’Shea mode, although his astounding gift for flowers shines through in his take on Mission San Juan Capistrano.
There are scads of curator-type stuff that could be regurgitated here, but the absolute most bitchin’ thing about art is that beauty lies exclusively in the eye of the beholder. One person’s boat float is another’s capsize. There are Monet militants and Henri Matisse maniacs. Salvador Dalí devotees, Pablo Picasso promoters and Paul Gauguin groupies.
That said, when perusing the 40-odd French landscapes from the Brooklyn Museum, the chief thread connecting the impressionists and their predecessors is plein-air. As in, “Ditch the studio, Henri, get your butt outside and start sketching. Tout de suite.”
Monet, who has three paintings in this exhibition—try and figure out which one isn’t finished—is the plein-air poster child. Not just the lily pads and fields, but also sitting and creating all those different drawings of the Rouen Cathedral and the British Parliament at various times of the day. What Monet and his buddies bring to the ballgame is the rough, seemingly tossed-off feel of the brush strokes.
Entering this exhibition, the focal point is Monet’s “Rising Tide at Pourville,” which is in Normandy. The composition and perspective are textbook impressionism. Tucked into the lower right corner is a bluff and cottage. The remaining four-fifths of the canvas—at least it feels like that—are lines of rollers heading toward shore. The view comes from above and is skewed left—almost like what a gull would see wheeling overhead. That same odd angling shows up in his “Woman With a Parasol,” where it seems like the painter is laying flat on his back at the bottom of a hill looking up.
Channeling a little bit of old Claude is Willard Leroy Metcalf’s “Early Spring Afternoon–Central Park.” Or check out “Reflections” by another American, John Henry Twachtman. He’s definitely laying down a van Gogh groove. He also uses a zany impressionist point of view by anchoring the painting’s center in the middle of a river. The heavily layered paint award goes to Edward Henry Potthast for “Rocks and Sea” and “The Bathers.”
The third floor’s Transcending Vision: American Impressionism, 1870-1940 is 100 or so paintings brought to Sacramento by Bank of America, which ploughed some of its past profits into artwork. (Perhaps they could sell a few and get its share price above $20.)
What’s real obvious is there’s a whole lotta changes going on in style over 70 years. Turn right when entering and check out the prevailing art form that gradually morphs into American impressionism. They call it the Hudson River School, and it’s all about grandiose—largely idealized—landscapes.
Then things start to get interesting. Jumping off the wall is Childe Hassam’s very purple “Old House, East Hampton.” But overall, what’s different from the French is that the colors seem a bit darker. That said, the style of Lila Cabot Perry’s “The Poacher” is reminiscent of Seurat’s bright dots. There are plenty of landscapes on display, but a number of the canvases don’t feature genteel subjects like Monet’s Japanese bridge or Edgar Degas’ ballet dancers or Henri Rousseau’s Tahitian paradise. They portray gritty urban scenes such as dock workers or fireman dousing a burning bridge. As though the artists are saying, “We’re Americans, we’re egalitarian and we celebrate everything.”
This is the kind of entrancing experience that is just one of the rich payoffs resulting from the creation of the new Crocker. Be part of the adventure.