Fifteen or so years ago, James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin knew very little about important movements in art history. But after attending a Sotheby's auction, the Virginia couple decided to learn all they could about early American art. That day they purchased their first American canvas, an early-20th-century realist painting of a charming child, caught perhaps on a cold, windy day. “Listening Boy,” with his ruddy cheeks, peaked hat and green scarf, was painted in 1924 by Robert Henri, a Philadelphia illustrator and teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, who profoundly influenced his fellow realist artists.
The McGlothlins were hooked and soon became avid collectors of paintings by the American impressionists and realists. Now their enormously significant collection, which includes pieces by artists working in Europe and the United States from the antebellum period through the 1920s, has been promised to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Seventy paintings, sculptures and works on paper from the McGlothlin holdings are on view through July 25 in VMFA's newly expanded American wing.
“American Art from the McGlothlin Collection” is divided into three sections. It begins with an area entitled Young America, which includes an array of five floral still lifes and landscapes by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), usually known as a Hudson River School painter.
Next we enter the Gilded Age, which denotes works created after the Civil War and through the early 20th century. The American impressionists, newly returned from Giverny (a bohemian enclave near Paris), were delighting in portraying carefree society women chatting and posing while engaged in various pleasant activities. Magnificent paintings by Robert Blum, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent chronicle this period. Chase's “Friendly Advice,” from 1913, shows two women casually conversing in an elegant salon. Sargent's “Venetian Wineshop” is a welcome anomaly here. Three sultry women and a man are enjoying wine and conversation. Look closely and you'll see that all three women have the same face. Sargent might have found it easier to reuse the same model.
There are five Sargents in the show, a coup for the museum. There are also intriguing paintings by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Robert Henri, John Sloan and Maurice Prendergast.
By the turn of the century, many of the Americans had studied in France, often at Giverny with Monet, picking up the use of brilliant color, broken brush strokes and the effect of light as it transfers from the retina onto the canvas. Yet for the most part, French technique was coupled with distinctly American subject matter. Childe Hassam painted atmospheric weather scenes. “His Winter Nightfall in the City,” from 1889, depicts a carriage rolling through an American city. He makes use of a subdued palette with broad, loose strokes. And the vehicle, complete with coachman, strongly suggests that privileged people are riding in it.
On the other hand, the tough realism of Everett Shinn's 1899 “Horsedrawn Bus,” in the exhibit's last section, titled A Modern World, suggests a cold, rough, urban scene. The horses are weary, nearly collapsing on the ice as they transport the tired workers home in the snow. The American Impressionist John Twachtman, who always played with atmospheric effects, also suggests the fragility of water and snow. The ramshackle “Gloucester Fisherman's House,” dating from 1900, is a working-class subject painted in glowing pink. The wash hangs out on the clothesline, but Twachtman's scene is rendered in the impressionist vein, endowing an everyday subject with delicate beauty.
The McGlothlin American Art collection is on display through July 25 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. For information visit vmfa.state.va.us.