There are a couple of exhibitions of nineteenth-century landscape painting on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, and while both merit attention, especially if one is a plein air painter with an interest in the genre’s history, there is reason for disappointment. The fault lies not entirely with the works themselves, but more about that later.
The primary show is The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon, a collection of about seventy mostly small drawings and paintings by Rousseau, who along with Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet was one of the founders of the Barbizon School of painting. The exhibition reveals Rousseau’s complexity, both in terms of historical context and technical approach. Rousseau was born to paint landscape; the show opens with A Village in a Valley, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. That the artist was a teenager when he painted it makes the work’s precision and atmospheric clarity all the more impressive. The painting’s cool naturalism suggests a temperament akin to that of the young Corot, who was nearly a generation older.
Rousseau’s realism settled into a darker expression, one that excluded human presence and inclined toward jagged topography and ominous woods; a later oil of a rocky landscape in the Forest of Fontainebleau is reminiscent of Courbet. Savvy curatorial sidebars note Rembrandt’s influence on Rousseau’s finely wrought drawings, and isolate a pen and ink sketch whose twisted trees, described in dots and dashes, presage the calligraphic inflections of van Gogh. Rousseau worked fluently in virtually every medium, oil and watercolor, pencil, pen and charcoal—the show’s cover image, Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset (ca. 1846), was begun as a charcoal drawing on paper, to which oil paint was added. The exhibition’s emphasis on drawings done before nature is especially valuable, for it underscores Rousseau’s personal connection to his subjects, as well as offering insight into the picture making process in a pre-photographic era.
Rousseau’s life was beset by personal misfortune and lack of public success, and the generally dolorous mood of his work reflects his worldly troubles. Whatever the motivating factors, the sobriety of Rousseau’s personality found comfort in the forests outside of Paris. Surprisingly, his work has never been the subject of an exhibition in this country, and though a comprehensive presentation demands the inclusion of major canvases, the Morgan has performed a long overdue service in staging The Untamed Landscape.
Sky Studies: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection is the theme of a smaller show, fourteen paintings in all, installed in the Morgan’s basement level. One approaches it with high hopes, perhaps inflated by thoughts of Constable. What’s present isn’t bad, but one expects more than adequacy from a museum of this caliber. There are several unremarkable sketches by Johan Christian Dahl, an important Norwegian landscape painter whose best plein air works are characterized by a romantic treatment, painted with high energy. In this show those honors go to paintings by Eugène Boudin and Eugène Isabey, with some nicely naturalistic cloud studies by Jean-Michel Cels, a little-known Belgian artist.
A problem for both shows is intrinsic to the setting. Since moving to Connecticut in 1994, I hadn’t visited the Morgan, and was not familiar with the architectural reconfiguration that was completed by Renzo Piano in 2006. My reservations begin and end with the updated conception of the museum and its role as an exhibition space. A lot of it is right, per se: the vast atrium, abundance of glass walls, doubling of exhibition area and intent to connect the institution’s sprawling departments are laudable achievements for a public urban environment. But it’s an incongruous setting for intimate shows, especially those of small old master works. The Rousseau and sky studies would have been a perfect fit for a couple of adjacent rooms in the old Morgan, works of a bygone era sequestered in the old mansion. The small nineteenth-century landscapes currently on view seem anachronistic in these surroundings, their modest scale overwhelmed by the proximal atrium; the sky studies in particular are lost in space.
This leads to an unusual conclusion, that the catalogue for the Rousseau exhibition, with reproductions filling the pages, restores the impact that’s lost in the actual physical presentation. The new vertical Morgan, defined by open air and crisp geometry, its various levels accessible via glass elevator, is tailor-made for large twentieth-century painting. An example of the seamless matching of art to its showcase may be seen uptown at that other mansion turned museum, the Frick, where Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery is now installed. It’s worth taking a few hours on a Friday afternoon to visit both. Hurry—the Frick is planning its own major renovations, complete with a six-story addition.