Impressionists on the road

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

courtesy of american federation of arts
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
Finds: Renoir's 'La Parisienne,' bought by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies in the early 1900s, received poor reviews when first shown in 1874.
courtesy of american federation of arts
'Rain-auvers': This Van Gogh, the collection's jewel, was finished just before the artist's death.

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

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.

"The Turners grab you by the throat with their turbulence and atmospheric effects," says Brosius, "then the story starts to unfold." The show marches through romantic realism by Corot and Millet, Daumier's scenes of urban life (a new subject for art of that day), full-blown Impressionism by the likes of Monet, Manet, and Renoir, up to Post-Impressionism of Cézanne, Bonnard, and Van Gogh.

Seventy-five percent of the works are French, with the British artist Turner as a precursor to Impressionism.

Among the standouts is Turner's "The Storm," a dramatic scene of a shipwreck, in which a foundering boat almost dissolves in the foam of tempestuous waves. For Turner, the subject is never the point. His swirling veils of luminous color are paramount, a direct influence on Monet.

Painters of their 'present'

The exhibition next presents Corot's misty landscapes with their silvery, olive tones, then paintings by his Barbizon School colleague Millet, known for his scenes of peasant life. A hyperdramatic scene by Millet, "The Gust of Wind," portrays the moment a tree is ripped up by its roots, hovering menacingly over a cowering shepherd – an apocalyptic view of nature. Daumier, who was little known in Britain, is represented not by his biting caricatures, but his oil paintings of contemporary street life. While other British collectors were buying escapist, fantasy fare like the Pre-Raphaelites' views of Camelot, the Davies sisters were looking squarely at the present.

The Impressionists' landscapes, which make up the chief glory of the collection, were also not idyllic views of the past or of disappearing rural life but instead showed an unabashed acceptance of the modern, everyday world.

Nature scenes by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley typically acknowledge industry by including smokestacks, trains, or bridges. Not only their subjects but also their techniques reflected change. Their radical new approach to color and form, rendered through flickering brush strokes to convey a spontaneous, in-the-moment snapshot, was revolutionary.

In Monet's "Palazzo Dario," half the canvas is blue water, chopped up with strokes of pink, white, and green paint, to evoke the watery world of Venice and its shifting light. In "Charing Cross Bridge," the murky atmosphere is the subject. In this "pea souper," never has fog looked so luscious, with the bridge and distant Houses of Parliament mere ghostly hints.

Renoir's "La Parisienne," a life-size portrait of a young coquette in a fetching, cobalt-blue day dress, unequivocally shows a modern woman whose direct gaze boldly confronts the viewer. The absence of background detail and sketchy rendering of the figure were considered audacious.

The sisters went way out on a limb when purchasing paintings by Cézanne, who'd been virtually ignored by British collectors. His more abstract, geometric approach with his color patches of blue, green, and terra cotta uniting the composition, held no fear for them.

Van Gogh as showstopper

But it's Vincent van Gogh's "Rain-Auvers," finished in 1890 a few weeks before his death, that's the showstopper.

In a letter to his brother the artist describes "vast fields of wheat beneath troubled skies" that express "sadness, extreme solitude."

With slashing strokes that look like falling stars, he cuts through the thick impasto of the bands of color representing fields and sky. The painting captures the plunging mood of today's troubled times but offers a grain of reassurance. Rain nurtures growth, just as art considered shockingly radical provides seeds for the future.

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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)

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