On a visit last week to New Haven, all roads led to Venice, or so it seemed to me. What with the midday traffic on Church Street, maybe I just wanted to go somewhere far away, where there are no cars.
A Venetian thread is admittedly a tenuous theme with which to connect the Yale University Art Gallery and the nearby Yale Center for British Art, but it speaks to the hold the floating city had on generations of artists, and the spell it generates still. Aldro Hibbard’s oil of the Piazza at St. Mark’s and Maurice Prendergast’s watercolor of the same subject are, incongruously, among the first works in the Art Gallery’s current exhibition, It Was a New Century: Reflections on Modern America. So be it. Prendergast has always been an anomaly, by virtue of his official affiliation with the urban painters of The Eight, and in the broader scheme by not fitting conveniently into any American movement. His oils, flat, thick and decorative, give him art historical street cred, but his watercolors, with their Morse code dots and dashes of semi-transparent color, place Prendergast among the very best American practitioners. The more characteristic members of the Ashcan School are here too: Robert Henri is represented by a large theatrical portrait; Everett Shinn by pastels that are sometimes more flimsy than evanescent; Ernest Lawson—whose French palette adapted to city subjects—by a lovely view of the Harlem River; George Luks, with a vigorous handling of a horse race; and George Bellows, whose lithographs of New York boxing scenes end the show with style and bite. There are some fine Homer watercolors, their terse designs contrasting with the intricacy of those by Prendergast.
My favorite work in the show may be William Merritt Chase’s A Bit of the Terrace, which beats similar images by his European counterparts by transforming the urban park from an Elysian to a domestic and autobiographical setting. It took a generation for Henri and his followers to displace Chase’s debonair vision, but I’m less convinced than I used to be that the urban subjects of The Eight were any more realistic than the art they supplanted. Their case here is best made by Bellows, whose prints are both boisterous and grave at the same time; in other words, he was perfectly suited by temperament to be a New York City artist. The exhibition—all the work derives from a single private collection—reads like a condensed version of the Met’s 1994 anthology on American painting at the turn of the century. With an Adriatic touch.
Down the block and across the street is the Center for British Art, its airy and elegant interior spaces having reopened last spring after a year and a half of renovations. This is very good news if, like me, you have Anglophilic tendencies. Highlights of the collection have been reinstalled on the fourth and fifth floors, as part of a long-term exhibition entitled Britain in the World. Therein is the largest collection of British painting in the country, more of which is now accessible thanks to an extensive hall with paintings hung salon style. Breadth and depth are separate qualities, and I’m reminded of the Metropolitan Museum’s decision in the 1990s to make more of its American holdings public on movable walls. This is a mixed blessing. Scholars will be pleased, but anyone hoping for a revelation of previously sequestered masterpieces will be disappointed. In other words, we weren’t missing much before.
There is, however, just such a surprise around the corner from the usual suspects (Constable and Turner, to whom we’ll return shortly), in the guise of a brother and sister portrait by Robert Burnard. His painting of John Gubbins Newton and Mary Newton exists apart from the contemporaneous grand manner; it is a provincial work, of a sobriety in tone and character that is nearly primitive, yet it is so cleanly drawn that its creator was surely well trained. Every part—the children’s faces and clothing, the horse, and the dog whose tail is alertly erect—is painted with an earnest realism that suggests a Northern influence (I’m thinking of the Danish painter Christen Købke). Burnard, it seems, was a house painter and plumber, and the present canvas was attributed to him in 2001. Yale claims that it is his only known work, though an Australian collection attributes a still life to him. Either way, his anonymity remains fairly secure.
Notwithstanding the portraits by Reynolds and Lawrence and George Stubbs’s horses, the collection’s cornerstone is Romantic landscape. Yale is famously rich in Constable studies, the little meteorological notes he made of passing clouds that nearly every plein-air artist since has emulated; miracles of inspired temporal observation, they are now hung by the dozen on opposite walls. These virtuosic notes reach a crescendo in his painting of Hadleigh Castle, wherein clouds pile ominously, in what’s traditionally interpreted as an expression of grief over the recent death of his wife. Nearby are Turner’s large scale evocations of sea and storm in Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, based on both a real Scottish island and a then wildly popular myth, and the blinding radiance of sunrise that obliterates all detail in Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning, a canvas no less effective for being unfinished. Constable’s romantic impulses were forever tied to his familiar English countryside; Turner traveled widely, yet for all the topographical notes he made, his earth, sea and sky eventually became equally vaporous elements all but freed from recognizable touchstones. The third great British master of the genre, had he lived long enough, would have been Richard Parkes Bonington. He, too, is well represented at Yale, by studio pieces as well as plein air sketches. Bonington was the swiftest draftsman of the lot, and there’s a scintillating lightness to his touch that belies a melancholic nature. His Landscape near Quilleboeuf, France, is the most serene painting in the collection, but I favor the clear colors and architectural precision of his Grand Canal, Venice. As a plein-air painter traveling through Italy in 1826, Bonington was working at a level close to that of Corot, who happened to be painting in and around Rome at precisely the same moment.
The other Venetian painting I’d hoped to revisit was Walter Sickert’s L’Ospedale Civile, Venice, but it’s not currently on view. As Canaletto, Turner, Bonington, and his mentor Whistler had done before him, Sickert staked Venice as his own territory, visiting repeatedly from 1895 to 1904. Having exhausted the outdoor scenery, on his last foray he stayed in a rented room and hired prostitutes to pose for works that foreshadowed his Camden Town interiors. Yale’s La Giuseppina hails from this series, and it’s cleverly installed—one can fairly hear a curator chuckling—beside Gwen John’s Study of a Nun, which shares a Whistlerian palette.
There’s far more to the British collection, ranging from van Dyck to Hogarth, Gainsborough, Bacon, and Uglow. Although the European and American collections were not on view in the Art Gallery, what is up now is very much worth the trip, all the more so on a given weekday when guards are nearly as numerous as guests.
On my way out of town, Siri sought the quickest route through downtown traffic by directing a u-turn on College Street. “Really?” I asked the dashboard, and wondered if vaporetti are equipped with GPS.
It Was a New Century: Reflections on Modern America will be on view at the Yale University Art Gallery until June 4, 2017. At the Yale Center for British Art, Britain in the World is up through December 31, 2017.