Nov. 3, 2004
In a subtle light
With great care and little fuss, BMA curator Sona Johnston helps bring
out the detail and harmony in works by Monet contemporary Theodore
By Mary Carole McCauley
Sun Arts Writer
There seems to be a psychic connection between them, the asthmatic,
awkward young painter and the genteel woman who has worked as a museum
curator for four decades.
No matter that the painter, Theodore Robinson, has been dead for more
than 100 years.
Look closely at Robinson’s paintings and you learn something about him,
about painting, about 19th-century France and about Impressionism. But
also, perhaps, you learn something about curator Sona Johnston as well.
That connection is implicit in the quietness, the simplicity, the
reticence of painting after painting. It’s implicit in the way the
moonlight strikes the walls of a farmhouse, drawing attention to their
everyday beauty without making a big fuss about it.
In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny is the culmination of
Johnston’s career, the past 35 years of which have been spent at the
Baltimore Museum of Art. The show, which brings together 59 of
Robinson’s works and five by his friend, Claude Monet, runs through
Jan. 9 at the BMA.
During a press screening of the exhibit, Johnston stood before an 1892
painting, Moonlight at Giverny, in which the blue of the nighttime sky
and the white walls of a mysterious old building are beckoning, soft
“What I love so much is the light,” she said, “the nature of the
shadows in the foreground, the way the roof blends into the hill. You
can sense the atmosphere very distinctly.”
It’s because of qualities like these that Robinson is considered the
leading American Impressionist after Mary Cassatt. In the mid-1970s,
shortly after she curated her first show on Robinson for the BMA,
Johnston began delving into the artist’s unpublished diaries. Her
edited version will be published in a few years.
The diaries depict a man who, though shy and lacking in
self-confidence, was fiercely independent and pursued his art valiantly
until he died prematurely, at age 43, from the asthma that had burdened
him since childhood.
They make it clear, Johnston said, that the bond between Robinson and
Monet, as well as their long conversations on artistic issues,
benefited both men. “The diaries give us glimpses into both of their
lives,” she said. “What wasn’t known before now was the extent of their
In the three decades that she has been perusing the diaries, Johnston
has become the world’s leading expert on Robinson.
“Sona is a remarkable treasure for us,” said Jay Fisher, the BMA’s
chief curator. “She’s an object-centered person, a very visual person.
She has an artist’s sensitivity to materials and the experience of
The adjective used most frequently in describing the 65-year-old
Johnston is “lovely.” She’s tall and slender, and her gray hair swoops
up and over her forehead like frozen waves in a frozen sea. It’s not
difficult to imagine her wearing high-buttoned boots or carrying a
As a curator, Johnston’s hallmark is a passion for the artwork. She
even treasures the “imperfections” in the paintings – an indistinct
hand in Gathering Plums (1891), the way the corner of The Duck Pond
(1891) deliberately fades away.
“I love the fact that he doesn’t feel the need to go to the edge of the
canvas and finish the painting,” Johnston said.
It is the kind of refined and cultivated – but unexpected – touch that
typifies Johnston’s approach, her colleagues say, the kind of detail
that rewards the attentive observer.
“She’s much more visually oriented than most curators are,” said her
husband, William Johnston, a curator at the Walters Art Museum. “She
likes works that require looking at, studying and thinking about.”
In a Sona Johnston show, you will not find an artwork selected merely
because it fits into a social, cultural or academic hypothesis. Every
piece can justify its place on aesthetic grounds.
“Sona’s not comfortable with a lot of drama,” Fisher said. “Her choices
are more refined and well-orchestrated. She’s not the kind of curator
who will want a wild flurry of wall color in the galleries.”
Colleagues praise Johnston’s meticulous research. It was she who
discovered that Robinson paired compositions that suggest changes in
the time of day, season or weather – just like Monet’s lilac bushes and
his views of the Seine River at Argenteuil.
No one had realized that Robinson’s two canvases of rooftops and
orchards and his two grain-stacks are variations on a theme, because
the artworks in each series had been split up and were hanging in
different museums and private collections.
“It was a major insight,” Johnston said. “These things that I had
thought were copies were different.”
Now reunited, the paintings are shown side by side in the current show
to great effect. Johnston also uncovered archival photographs that are
displayed in the show for the first time, and her captions include
previously unpublished excerpts from the diaries.
After leaving Baltimore, the exhibit will travel to the Phoenix Art
Museum in Arizona, and then the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in
“It’s a wonderful show,” said Elizabeth Kornhauser, the Wadsworth’s
curator of American paintings and sculpture.
“We’re really excited about bringing it here for our audiences. It’s
visually dazzling, and very bold. To the best of my knowledge, this is
the first occasion that an American curator has had the daring to
showcase an American Impressionist alongside a French Impressionist.
And not just any French Impressionist, but Monet.”
Kornhauser was impressed with the exhibit’s sharp focus on the six
years that Robinson spent in Giverny. “Instead of doing this big,
blockbuster show, this has a quieter, more intellectual focus,” she
said. “The minute you see this show, you know that the curator has had
years of research and study under her belt. When you come away you’ve
learned something, and that isn’t always the case when museums do
Johnston’s exacting and impassioned scholarship also helped the BMA
acquire rarely lent pieces for the show. Museums are loath to ship
works by such in-demand painters as Monet across the country –
particularly in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere of heightened security.
“Sona usually gets what she wants, but she doesn’t do it by
aggressiveness,” Fisher said. “She does it by persistence and solid
arguments. There are pictures in this exhibition that the institutions
that own them didn’t want to lend.
“Sona only wanted to include Monets that Robinson actually saw or could
have seen in Giverny. A generic Monet wouldn’t do. And when you have
the greatest expert in the world on Theodore Robinson telling the other
museum that we need these two pictures together to make this particular
point, that there’s not another painting owned by another institution
anywhere in the world that would make that point as well, it’s much
more difficult for them to say no.”
Johnston may be ladylike, but she’s no pushover. Just ask her courtly,
bow-tied husband. Not only is William Johnston the Walters’ associate
director, he’s also the curator of 18th- and 19th-century art. In
addition to mounting shows, both curators also acquire artworks for
their museums, either by buying them outright or through a donation.
Given the similarity of the couple’s jobs, and given the two art
museum’s geographical proximity – not to mention rivalry – there are
times when the Johnstons must have very interesting dinner
conversations. Or, perhaps, very interesting silences.
“There are things we won’t talk about to one another,” Sona Johnston
says. “We’ll never tell the other anything that would affect our
institution in an adverse way.”
After all, art is the earliest love of her life.
Johnston was born in January 1939, the daughter of Armenian immigrants.
One of young Sona’s favorite activities was paging through the art
books belonging to her uncle, a gifted painter and watercolorist who
lived next door. (He later became a dean of the Rhode Island School of
While attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York in the late 1950s,
she decided to give painting a whirl, but found that she wasn’t cut out
for the occasionally truculent art then in vogue at the tail end of the
abstract expressionist movement.
“One day, in frustration, one of my teachers came up to me and said, ‘I
want you to paint something ugly,'” she recalled. “I did a really
brutal painting, but then I covered it up with pretty colors.”
After graduating, she began studying art history at New York
University’s Institute of Fine Arts. It was there, during a Friday
afternoon tea, that she noticed a young man wearing a European-cut suit
of dark blue pinstripes. She appreciated the taste necessary to acquire
and value such a suit despite the more casual prevailing fashion.
William Johnston, in turn, had noticed the tall, striking woman with
the shimmering black hair and deep brown eyes.
For a time, they carried on a long-distance romance. Sona left graduate
school to take a job at Boston’s Fine Arts Museum, and William Johnston
went to work in Baltimore for the Walters in 1966. When the couple
married in 1967, Sona moved to Charm City.
She joined the now-defunct Peale Museum, and was recruited by the BMA
in 1970. She has worked there since.
During her tenure, Johnston acquired a pair of Tiffany columns for the
museum “at a rock-bottom price,” Fisher said, and helped open the BMA’s
Jacobs wing, with its collection of Old Masters. She has curated
exhibits and written catalogs on Benjamin West, an American who was
court painter to England’s George III at the time of the Revolutionary
War; on 18th- and 19th-century American painters and on 19th-century
French art. She has worked on shows featuring mosaics dating from A.D.
400 to classic Renaissance sculptures.
“In an increasingly narrow and specialized age, there aren’t many
curators today who have Sona’s breadth and depth,” said the BMA’s
director, Doreen Bolger. “In her elegant and gentle way, she covers a
huge, huge waterfront. She’s as comfortable speaking with the Queen’s
Keeper of Pictures as with a curator in Iowa. She’s pretty
Even Johnston’s most ardent admirers, however, admit she isn’t suited
“Sona could never be a curator of contemporary art,” Fisher said. “She
thinks that art should be beautiful, and you can talk to her up one
side and down the other, and you’ll never convince her otherwise. She
holds her values very strongly, and that’s something to celebrate.”
As beautiful as Robinson’s paintings are, Johnston is the first to
acknowledge that he was less gifted than his groundbreaking friend.
“Monet was a genius,” she said. “Robinson’s paintings are more intimate
than Monet’s. His palette is more muted and he has a less robust way of
The exhibit makes a persuasive case for the unique charms of restraint,
the extraordinary gifts it has to confer – whether in a work of art or
in a human being.
Birthplace: Cambridge, Mass.
Job: Senior curator of painting and sculpture, Baltimore Museum of Art
Previous posts: Worked in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and at the
former Peale Museum in Baltimore
Education: Bachelor’s degree in art history, Sarah Lawrence College;
graduate studies at New York University’s Institute of Fine Art
Personal: Her husband, William Johnston, is associate director of the
Walters Art Museum. Their son, Fredric, works for the foreign
agriculture service of the USDA.
Greatest non-work passion: Her three cats: Fiona, Fauna and Domino
What: In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
When: through Jan. 9. The museum is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wednesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. the
first Thursday of every month
Admission: $12; $10 for senior citizens, college students and groups of
12 or more; $6 for children 6-18; free for children 5 and younger.
Includes museum admission and audio tour.
Tickets sold: At the BMA box office or through Ticketmaster at
410-547-7328 and at
Information: 410-396-7100 or visit