Even with the opening of “Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times” delayed by three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi Museum of Art Director Betsy Bradley notes two strokes of good fortune as MMA reopened to the general public last week. The art left Italy, its previous tour stop, this past spring, just ahead of shutdowns amid the outbreak there.
“We were very lucky, because it got out right before they shut down the airport (in Milan),” Bradley says. And its stay has been extended through Jan. 10, which was possible because Jackson is the exhibition’s final stop on its travels.
“Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: The Mellon Collection of French Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” is a showcase of 74 works—paintings and sculptures—by famous 19th and 20th century French artists, with a breadth that goes beyond the marquee names in its title. Also adorning the gallery walls are works by Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Raoul Dufy, Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard and more.
The vast majority are works that collectors Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon lived with in their residences, Bradley says. The exhibition’s entrance, as well as the use of moulding and soothing hues throughout, are subtle touches that echo domestic, interior spaces. As such, the show offers a window into the personal passions of one of the 20th century’s most philanthropic art-collecting couples, from equine works that tie into their love of horse racing and their home in Virginia’s horse country, to the Paris and French countryside views that capture their much-visited destinations.
The show, the first traveling exhibition of the Mellon Collection since Bunny Mellon’s bequest to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2014, encompasses major schools of French art, including romanticism, impressionism, Fauvism and cubism. The Richmond-based museum curates it.
The large photographic portrait of the Mellons at the exhibit’s start pictures the couple standing before a bronze sculpture of a horse—a Kentucky Derby winner Paul Mellon owned. It’s a natural opening for the exhibition, flowing right into a gallery of horse art. Highlights include Edgar Degas’ “At the Races Before the Start” with the excitable energy of racehorses on the field, and Delacroix’s intriguing “Study of a Black-Brown Horse Tethered to a Wall.” Pierre Alfred De Dreux’s “Return from the Race Course” packs the narrative power of a short story in its depiction of owner, horses and even a glum little dog heading home after what had to be a disappointing day at the races.
The exhibition unfolds across groupings of artworks that follow themes of “Horses,” “People,” “Views of Paris,” “Water,” “The French Countryside,” “Flowers,” and “Interiors and Tables,” building toward a rousing close with large, dramatic and iconic works under the heading, “The Transformation of the Ordinary.”
The rosy cheeks of Renoir’s models (his son, bent over a sketch, in one, and a pensive woman, gazing out the window, in another) and the impudent stance of Degas’ famous “The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” are like old friends for French art fans. But the real surprise for viewers may be the show’s intimate works. Small and mesmerizing, these compel and reward a closer look.
Many subjects work like a balm for a population emerging from months at home during this pandemic. James Tissot’s painting of a mother and her young child picnicking by a pond is the sort of charming scene viewers will want to crawl inside and stay awhile. Ditto for the bracing refreshment of Bonnard’s “The Pont de Grenelle and the Eiffel Tower,” with its spirited colors and a view one could drink in all day. Beach scenes by Manet and by Berthe Morisot (the only woman in the exhibition), and St. Thomas views by Pissarro are virtual vacations for the eye, as are Claude Monet’s “Field of Poppies” and Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of a wheat field.
“That’s why people are so excited about this show. … It just gives you that kind of beauty that is pristine, and it seems uncomplicated,” Bradley says, “even though, obviously, the techniques are complicated and when it was seen at first, it caused such an uproar in the traditional art academy. But now, it just feels like beauty washing over you.”
The soft dappling of light reflected on water in a Gustave Caillebotte painting, energetic brushstrokes of a sailboat scene by Maurice de Vlaminck and Van Gogh’s swirly clouds carry the breath of fresh air straight into the cool galleries.
Garden and floral scenes, including Monet’s “Camille at the Window, Argenteuil,” Van Gogh’s “Daisies, Arles” and Odilon Redon’s “Vase of Flowers” do that, too, with tranquil, captivating ease. Interiors such as Dufy’s artist’s studio with its happy hues and breezy air, and Gauguin’s “Still Life with Oysters” with its shucked oysters and champagne are inviting enough to make viewers want to pull up a chair.
Rousseau’s “Tropical Landscape,” Picasso’s “The Chinese Chest of Drawers,” Bonnard’s “The Dining Room” and more are playgrounds for the eye—a fun jaunt across the canvas to explore the corners, colors, lines, textures, patterns and figures.
The Mellons did not own a few of the works, such as Monet’s “Irises by a Pond” (monumental, at about 6 1/2 feet by nearly 5 feet) and Degas’ dancer sculpture, but the exhibition includes them as top examples of impressionist art, a collection priority of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Paul Mellon’s quotes about the couple’s selections in artworks, driven not by importance or investment potential but the “immediacy of their visual impact,” sums up the treat their collection shares and that this exhibition holds for viewers.
Fueled by personal affinity, “they bought works they wanted to live with,” Bradley says, “and especially these, because, most of them they didn’t let go of until they died.”
Jackson is the sixth venue for the exhibition, which has drawn more than 300,000 visitors at venues in the United States, in Paris and in Padua, Italy, Courtney Burkhardt, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts senior exhibitions manager, said in an email.
This is the 17th installment in the Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series, sponsored by the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation.
“The art is beautiful. … Just imagine having that in your home,” says Laurie Hearin McRee, Hearin’s daughter and a member of MMA’s board of trustees.
She is struck by the personal threads in quotes from Paul Mellon throughout the exhibition.
“I do think it’s beautiful, but I also think it’s beautifully presented,” she says, praising exhibition designer Robin Dietrick and the meaningful presence the show gives to her mother, who was a contributor and adviser to the museum.
New protocols for cleanliness, sanitation and safety address continuing COVID-19 concerns. Advance timed-ticketing, social distancing (with blue lines on the floor as a visual reminder) and masks are required.
Museum admission is free, but “Van Gogh, Monet, Degas” carries an admission charge of $15 per person, $13 for seniors and groups of 10-plus and $10 for college students with school ID. Admission is free for museum members, first responders and essential workers, children age 5 and younger, and K-12 students on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For details on ticketing, safety protocols, hours and more, visit here.