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Impressionists on the road

Fine art collection of two prescient Welsh sisters set to dazzle small cities in US.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2009

J.M.W. Turner's 'The Storm' is among a handful of British paintings in a largely French show.

courtesy of american federation of arts

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One hundred years ago, the face of the world was changing drastically, with new industries, technology, and forms of transportation and communication emerging.

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How did two spinster sisters from a village in rural Wales respond to all of this social upheaval? Gifted with a vast inheritance from their industrialist grandfather, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies began to collect art – not just any art, but the most progressive French paintings of the day.

Their legacy, bequeathed to the National Museum Wales, now composes one of the finest Impressionist art collections in Europe. For the next year, 53 highlights will tour the US, opening March 6 at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C.

The Davies sisters acquired most of the works between 1908 and 1923. "Their taste was brave: admirably and positively modern," according to Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog, "Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales."

The sisters believed in the "improving" power of art and hoped to jump-start Welsh culture through a jolt of avant-garde current. "For single women at the turn of the century," says Karen Brosius, executive director of the Columbia Museum, "they were pioneers and quite visionary."

Ms. Brosius feels that her museum's mission is similarly educational and that the exhibition "tells the story of the development of modern art" at a crucial period of change. Organized by the American Federation of Arts and National Museum Wales, the show offers an extraordinary opportunity for those outside large urban centers to see works of surpassing quality. "Nothing like this has ever been here in recent memory," Brosius says.

To appreciate the prescience of the sisters' taste, it's worthwhile to note that one masterpiece, Renoir's sublime "La Parisienne," was judged a "failure" by critics when first shown in 1874. Cézanne was so scorned that when the Davies sisters offered to loan a landscape to the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in London, it was rejected. They were among the first collectors in Britain to buy many of the Impressionists' works as well as Van Gogh's. Seeing these paintings together is dazzling. The exhibition begins with oils and watercolors by J.M.W. Turner, installed in an octagonal gallery.

Where to see the Davies sisters' collection

"Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection" will visit these venues:

Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, S.C. (March 6–June 7, 2009)

Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma (June 25–Sept. 20, 2009)

Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y. (Oct. 9, 2009–Jan. 3, 2010)

Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Jan. 30–April 25, 2010)

Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, Alburquerque, N.M. (May 16–Aug. 8, 2010)