February 09, 2016

Comings and Goings at the Royal Academy, London

I have just returned from a week long trip to London and Zurich and it was a very nice break in the middle of a New York winter!  I will fill you in on my adventures in Zurich in a future blog, but now I'd like to tell you about a couple of exhibitions that I was able to view at the wonderful Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly.

I had the good fortune to be able to catch the very last day of "Jean-Etienne Liotard", an 18th century portraitist who has fallen into obscurity.  Born in Switzerland in 1702, Liotard was the embodiment of the Enlightenment era, a talented and successful artist whose works are imbued with sensitivity, exoticism and forthrightness. 

"Woman on a Sofa Reading", 1748-52
Oil on canvas

He traveled widely from London to Constantinople and painted aristocrats and royalty from Marie Antoinette to Bonnie Prince Charlie.  He was a master of the medium of pastel on vellum but more than competent with chalk drawings and oils.  He often incorporated exotic elements like Turkish clothing on British or European sitters and he was uncompromisingly truthful in physical portrayals.

"Julie de Thellusson-Ployard", 1760
Pastel on parchment

While Liotard's portraits are famous for their exquisite detail and candid depictions, he is probably best known for his smiles.  In a time when sitters were posed in serious settings with matching expressions, Liotard brought out the best in his subjects and portrayed them with all sorts of smiles from benevolent to mischievous.  It makes the viewer smile too, and that's another reason why the Royal Academy is to be commended for re-introducing us to this marvelous artist.

While the "Liotard" exhibition was closing, a new exhibition had just opened the day before in the RA's main galleries.  "Painting the Modern Garden:  Monet to Matisse" is a gorgeous celebration of the garden from Impressionism to Modern Art.  Using the work of Claude Monet as a springboard, the exhibition traces the evolution of the modern garden in art as painted by such masters as Renoir, Van Gogh, Sorolla, Kandinsky, Sargent, Klimt and many others. 

Pierre-August Renoir
"Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil", 1873

More than just pretty pictures of flowers, these paintings explore how the garden was portrayed as social and horticultural changes shaped the artistic landscape.  Monet himself was an avid horticulturalist and used his gardens as inspiration throughout his career.  In the beginning, the palatte was subdued and the depictions rather academic, but he soon became obsessed with light and color and by the end of his life, as he was loosing his eyesight, Monet painted with abandon both in size and vivacity creating some of his greatest abstract water lily paintings.

 Claude Monet
"Water Lilies (Agapanthus)", 1915-1926

As industrialization encroached upon urban areas, city-dwellers sought shelter in gardens as a means of re-connecting with nature.  Artists too flocked to gardens as oasis' of quiet and beauty and as ever changing, ever stimulating subjects to be interpreted on canvas.

Joaquin Sorolla
"Louis Comfort Tiffany in his Garden", 1911

Emil Nolde
"Flower Garden", 1922

This exhibition presents superb examples of floral painting in styles ranging from Symbolism to German Expressionism to Modernism, but the stars of the show are Monet's familiar but magnificent paintings of his gardens and water lily pond at his home in Giverny.  As a very special treat, the curators have assembled three large canvases that were painted as a triptych but never, until now, exhibited together.  Painted in response to the traumas of World War I, the three panoramic water lily paintings were sold to major American institutions in Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, where they have hung independently of each other, each a marvel in itself.  For the first time, viewers have the opportunity to enjoy the three perfectly co-joined paintings as they were originally intended and the result is amazing.

While the idea of flowers and gardens in painting may seem rather pedestrian, the Royal Academy makes the case that beauty is a universal theme and nothing is more beautiful than nature.

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