Two exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are sure to interest readers of this blog. The first is Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, and it closes on January 28, so you don’t have a lot of time left to see it — though chances are good you have already.
Henry James said in 1887: “It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for ‘American art’ we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it.” The exhibition features 100 paintings by 37 artists including John Singer Sargent, John White Alexander, Mary Cassatt, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Childe Hassam, Thomas Eakins, and others, as well as sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, and others.
In 1914, the painter and critic Kenyon Cox, echoing Henry James, wrote that the present period of American painting was marked by “a new foreign influence — mainly French — and of the effort to adapt a technic learned in the schools of continental Europe to the expression of American thought and American feeling.” The preceding period, Cox wrote, “was that of the slow evolution of a native school, and this school was on the verge of its highest achievement when…the present period began.” Of the “present,” French-influenced, period, Cox wrote, “We cannot yet tell how many of our painters belonging wholly to this last period may achieve a lasting fame. Those who seem already to have achieved it are of the time of transition, and their work marks the culmination of the native school and the beginning of the new influence from abroad.” To this group belonged Winslow Homer, who is featured inAmericans in Paris.
Cox wrote of Winslow Homer that he “has given us the most purely native work, as it is perhaps the most powerful, yet produced in America.” (It is hard to imagine that Cox would have altered his judgment on the basis of anything that has come since 1914.) Cox said that Homer was a late bloomer, not reaching his artistic maturity until he was fifty, or 1886. He had, said Cox, by then acquired “a sense of human beauty and, particularly, of the beauty of womanhood.” And Homer had by then acquired “his feeling for the beauty of atmosphere, the enshrouding mystery of air that is charged with moisture, the poetry of fog and mist.” A highlight of Americans in Paris is an oil painting that attests to Cox’s words, Homer’s hauntingly beautiful A Summer Night of 1890, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay. The French government purchased this picture after Homer received the Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1900.
(Two quick notes about Cox’s long essay on Homer, which is as outstanding a piece of art criticism as you are likely to read. It is included in a collection of Cox’s writings, What Is Painting?, issued by the Classical America Series in Art and Architecture. Second, the essay appeared, as I have noted, in 1914 — the same year as Geoffrey Scott’s great book The Architecture of Humanism. I think we can say 1914 was one great year for writing in English about the arts.)
The second exhibition at the Metropolitan is Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall — An Artist’s Country Estate, through May 20.
Laurelton Hall was Louis Comfort Tiffany’s country house in Oyster Bay, New York. The house was built in 1902-05. Tiffany resided there until his death in 1933. The house burned down in 1957. The best collection of surviving bits belongs to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. The Met has a few things of its own, too, of course, and has borrowed from the Morse Museum to create this stunning exhibition. Little of Tiffany’s work was “classical,” and much of it seems downright at odds with the spirit of classicism. Tiffany seems to belong to the self-consciously exotic — often the “Orientalist” — branch of late Victorian art, to the Arts and Crafts, ultimately to Art Nouveau. But to assimilate Tiffany to any one school or even to a dozen schools, rather than simply to the American Renaissance, would be wrong. And though the contemporaries Tiffany and Winslow Homer may seem to have little in common, each was an American individualist who forged his own creative persona while never thinking he did not have everything to learn from tradition. A peculiar drive in each man resulted in his unexampled body of work. The Laurelton Hall exhibition is a Tiffany feast that is not to be missed.
Tiffany, by the way, was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of the legendary New York jewelers Tiffany & Co. The younger Tiffany at first had nothing to do with his father’s company. This can be confusing in a place like the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where there are many works by the son’s companies — L.C. Tiffany & Associated Artists, Tiffany Glass Co., Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co., Tiffany Studios, Tiffany Furnaces — and the father’s company. The duality ceased with the father’s death in 1902, when Louis became artistic director of Tiffany & Co. and for the first time marketed his Tiffany Studios creations through the store his father began in 1837. In 1882-85 Louis had worked closely with Stanford White in designing Charles Lewis Tiffany’s house on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. (It is no longer there.) In 1906, Louis’s friend White designed Tiffany & Co.’s new store, at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street.