Six masterpieces

Cleveland Plain Dealer , OH
June 13 2004

Six masterpieces
Paintings worth the pilgrimage within a day’s drive of Cleveland


‘A Sunday on la Grande Jatte’

Dots. Zillions of dots of color. That’s what Georges Seurat used to
paint his Pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday on la Grande Jatte,”
first exhibited in Paris in 1886 and now owned by the Art Institute
of Chicago.

From Our Advertiser

The painting, one of the most famous in the world, has been
reproduced endlessly. Yet it defies reproduction, because its
technique, richness and large scale never come across in postcards or
posters. Seurat’s work, roughly 10 feet wide and 7 feet high, depicts
an island on the Seine River in Paris, where a well-dressed crowd has
gathered to enjoy the riverbank on a summer afternoon. It’s an image
of middle-class leisure at the dawn of the modern age. It’s also a
summation of Seurat’s theories about light and color, about how to
organize a grand composition and about how to go beyond the more
informal landscapes painted by his contemporaries, the

“It’s all about technique, the very calculated changes you can see
with the naked eye, but you can’t see in reproductions,” said Gloria
Groom, a curator of European painting at the museum. “Because the
surface is incredibly complex, it’s not a one-dimensional object.
It’s a tapestry, and it’s very rich.”

Viewed up close, the painting is a sea of tiny flecks. The arm of the
lounging boatman on the left side of the picture, for instance,
crackles with pure dots of purple, red, pink, green and blue. Step
back a few paces, and the dots appear to meld into the color of

“You can see it from different viewpoints, different perceptual
depths,” Groom said.

This summer, beginning Saturday and running through Sunday, Sept. 19,
the art institute will celebrate “La Grande Jatte” in a blockbuster
exhibition with roughly 130 paintings and sketches that re-create
Seurat’s creative process.

The show was conceived as a salute to the completion of the
Millennium Park concert stage on Chicago’s lakefront by Los Angeles
architect Frank Gehry. But it’s also an invitation to gaze deeply
into one of the world’s most famous masterpieces.

“When you’re in front of the painting, it’s not a passive
experience,” said Groom, who cocurated the exhibition. “Participation
is insisted upon. You cannot just ignore it.”

The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 S. Michigan Ave. Hours are
10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday
and Sunday. Open until 8 p.m. Tuesday (late hours switch to Thursday
on July 1). Admission is $10; $6 for students and seniors; free for
children under 5. Call 312-443-3600 or go to


‘Burning of the Houses of Parliament’

Katherine Solender of Cleveland, the acting director of the Allen
Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, has spent years looking at
J.M.W. Turner’s “Burning of the Houses of Parliament,” one of the
most famous paintings in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The work depicts the fire that consumed the Palace of Westminster on
the night of Oct. 16, 1834, as thousands of Londoners gathered to
watch from the banks of the Thames River.

Solender wrote an 80-page catalog for an exhibition in 1984 that
reunited the Cleveland painting with another version owned by the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Called “Dreadful Fire! Burning of the
Houses of Parliament,” the book compared both paintings with Turner’s
numerous watercolor studies and contemporary accounts of the

Standing in front of the painting last month, Solender saw things she
hadn’t seen before, particularly in Turner’s handling of paint. She
noticed, for example, how the thinly painted, blue-gray haze on the
right side of the painting contrasts strikingly with the heavy,
thickly painted yellow-orange flames that erupt in the center of the

“It’s about nuance and layering and all these different surfaces,”
Solender said. “The thing that’s so powerful is how he puts together
the physicality of the fire with all these things that explore the
meaning of it.”

While Turner’s ostensible subject is an urban disaster, the painting
also comments on the futility of resisting the immense power of
nature. Turner conveyed that immensity with brushstrokes that evoke
how the fireball erupting from Parliament turns into huge, smoky
clouds that nearly blot out the moon.

“The variety of applications of paint on one picture is so amazing,”
Solender said. “How could you reproduce something that complex?”

The Cleveland Museum of Art is at 11150 East Blvd. in University
Circle. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; until 9 p.m.
Wednesday and Friday. Admission is free. Call 216-421-7340 or go to


‘The Wedding Dance’

If there’s a Renaissance painter who deserves to be called
“Shakespearean,” it’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The greatest Flemish
painter of his time, Bruegel is beloved for paintings that are
utterly specific in their documentation of peasant life in
16th-century Holland, but universal in their appeal. The greatest
concentrations of Bruegel’s work lie in European museums. But there
are two great Bruegel paintings in the United States. “The
Harvesters,” painted in 1565, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York City. And “The Wedding Dance,” painted a year later, is at
the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it will go back on display about
July 1 after a gallery reinstallation. For an art lover, that’s
reason enough for a road trip to Motown. The foreground of “The
Wedding Dance” is dominated by well-fed men and women who reel and
strut like birds in a mating dance.

“The men with their codpieces, and the women with their flowing
skirts – it’s all about animal energy,” said George Keyes, chief
curator of the Detroit museum.

But if the dancers catch the eye at first, prolonged looking reveals
interactions between the smaller figures who loiter in the
background. Keyes imagines they’re striking deals, gossiping,
complaining about the weather.

Bruegel used color and shape to keep the eye moving throughout the
composition. Areas of red appear repeatedly, in the form-fitting
leggings of the dancing man in the lower left foreground, in the
skirt of the broad-hipped woman in the center foreground and in the
outfits of many peasants in the background.

Bruegel’s use of red directs the eye deep into the painting, where
the artist has artfully arranged a crowd of partygoers like a
Hollywood director with a huge cast of extras.

“This was a man who was an extraordinary observer of the world around
him,” Keyes said. “He never lets up in terms of characterization.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts is at 5200 Woodward Ave. Hours are 10
a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and 10
a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Suggested admission is $4, $1 per
child. Call 313-833-7900 or go to


‘Snap the Whip’

Winslow Homer intended his 1873 painting “Snap the Whip,” an image of
boys at play in a field, to be reproduced as a black-and-white wood

It was part of an extensive and highly popular series of paintings
that he had copied as illustrations for weekly magazines in the 1860s
and ’70s.

But even though the painting has been reproduced many times since
then, in both color and black and white, the original, owned by the
Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, maintains its

“The texture of the paint is reproducible, but it’s both stronger and
more gutsy in the original and therefore has a more visceral effect
on the viewer,” said John Wilmerding of Princeton University, a
renowned historian of American art.

The painting depicts a game in which nine boys hold hands and run
across a field outside a oneroom rural schoolhouse. Two bigger boys
at the back of the line stop suddenly, creating a whip action that
throws the youngest boys at the other end of the line to the ground.

Wilmdering said the painting has been interpreted as an image of
children establishing a playground pecking order. He also sees it as
“a celebration of youth after the slaughter of fathers and brothers
in the Civil War.”

When asked in a phone conversation what he sees when he looks deeply
at the surface of Homer’s painting, Wilmerding had no trouble
describing it from memory. He said he notices how Homer used his
brush to differentiate between the boys’ coarse clothing, the softer
textures of trees and sky in the background and the flat geometry of
the schoolhouse.

Perhaps most of all, Wilmerding said he thinks about how Homer
suggested the rough texture of the field through which the boys are
running in bare feet. In front of the original, it’s easy to see how
the foreground is filled with both flowers and stones, details that
don’t come across well in reproduction.

“It gives the painting a seriousness and almost pain,” Wilmerding
said. “It’s a game, but it’s a lesson about life.”

The Butler is at 524 Wick Ave., Youngstown. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday; and
noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 330-743-1711 or go to


‘The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb’

Many great artists endure hardships before realizing their ambitions,
but Arshile Gorky suffered more than most.

Born in the early 1900s in Armenia as Vosdanig Adoian, he had an
idyllic childhood that ended violently in 1915, when the Turkish army
invaded his homeland and began a campaign of genocide that left 1.5
million Armenians dead.

Gorky’s mother, whom he loved dearly, died of starvation in 1919.
Other family members, including the future artist, reunited in the
United States.

Adoian, who renamed himself for the Russian author Maxim Gorky, began
teaching and studying art first in Boston, then in New York.

After immersing himself in the styles of Paul Cezanne and Pablo
Picasso, Gorky came into his own in the 1940s. The 1944 painting “The
Liver Is the Cock’s Comb,” owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in
Buffalo, N.Y., is perhaps his greatest masterpiece.

Eight feet wide and more than 6 feet high, the work is an abstract
landscape filled with watery plumes of semi-transparent color that
coalesce around spiky, thornlike shapes, painted in thin, sharp black
lines, as if to suggest beaks and claws.

“To get the full impact of the colors and the gestures in the
painting, you really have to be in front of it,” said Kenneth Wayne,
a curator at the Albright- Knox. “It’s just full of energy and life.
It’s not somber and morose. It’s very active and dynamic.”

As an expression of Gorky’s work at its peak, the Albright-Knox
painting represents a moment that was tragically brief. After a
studio fire, a bout with cancer, a disabling car accident and a
failed marriage, Gorky committed suicide in 1948 by hanging himself.

“The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb” shrieks with life. But to experience
it fully, you have to stand in front of the painting. Looking at a
reproduction just won’t do.

That’s what makes it worthy of an artistic pilgrimage.

The Albright-Knox is at 1285 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, N.Y. Hours are 11
a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; until 9 p.m. Friday; and noon-5
p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8; $6 for students and seniors; free for
children 13 and under. Call 716-882-8700 or go to


‘Feast of the Gods’

If ever there were a painting in a U.S. museum worth traveling
hundreds of miles to see, it’s “Feast of the Gods” by Giovanni
Bellini at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The artist, a Renaissance master of color-drenched Venetian painting,
signed and dated the work in 1514, two years before he died. The
painting, in oil on canvas, depicts a randy episode from the poetry
of Ovid. During an orgy of the gods, Priapus, whose gown has a
telltale bulge below his waist, tries to violate a nymph named Lotis.
But an ass brays, the gods awaken from a drunken stupor, and Priapus
is foiled.

For David Brown, the National Gallery’s curator of Italian paintings,
reproductions fail to convey the painting’s scale, color and
brushwork. At 6 by 6 feet, it’s big enough to command attention amid
other Renaissance masterpieces. It also glows with a rich luminosity
characteristic of Venetian painters and unmatched by artists from
other Italian cities.

“Viewing it up close, you can see his [Bellini’s] wonderful skill of
hand, the manipulation of paint, the choice of colors, the attention
to detail,” Brown said. “The other thing is that the sheer beauty of
color and brushwork mask the actual subject of the picture, which is
an attempted rape.”

Seeing the painting in person also makes it possible to compare
Bellini’s brushwork with that of Titian, a younger and even more
famous Venetian master. After Bellini’s death, Duke Alfonso d’Este of
Ferrara asked Titian to repaint the landscape in the upper left
quadrant of the painting so it would look at home with a roomful of
other mythological paintings the duke had asked Titian to paint.

Titian’s brushwork in the landscape, in which a castle rises from the
top of a mountain, is bolder than Bellini’s treatment of the gods in
the foreground, which is more refined and delicate. But the two
styles merge perfectly to create a languorous, summery,
alcohol-saturated mood.

“It’s just how you’d feel after drinking a lot of wine at a picnic in
the country,” Brown said.

The National Gallery is at Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues,
N.W., in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through
Saturday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215
or go to