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Across the Pond 

The compelling VMFA exhibit “Transatlantic Currents” examines the pull exerted on American artists in Europe.

click to enlarge “Boats Ashore at Sunset” by Albert Bierstadt

“Boats Ashore at Sunset” by Albert Bierstadt

No doubt about it, the upcoming exhibition "Edward Hopper and the American Hotel" already has Richmond art lovers salivating in anticipation.

Hopper, like scores of American artists before him, traveled to Paris — in his case, three times — as a young man to study the masters and absorb the art scene. But unlike the American artists before him, Hopper, working in the 20th century, admitted to no European influences.

Not so many of America's painters of the late 19th century.

A jewel of a show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, "Transatlantic Currents: American Art from the Collection of Jane Joel Knox," shines a spotlight on the work of American artists at a time when nothing was more important in their development than time spent studying and traveling through Europe. For visiting artists, that meant engaging with impressionism, landscape painting, portraiture and still life, as well as academically informed styles of the day.

Leo Mazow, the museum's Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane curator of American art, says that studying abroad was essential to American painters because some of the best artists of that generation were teaching in art academies such as the École des Beaux Arts and the Academie Julién, the latter being the only European institution that accepted female pupils at the time.

"Time-honored masterpieces were in European art museums," he explains. "Studying such works constituted an extension of several American artists› ongoing artistic education."

Collector Jane Joel Knox has long been a friend, patron and former member of the board of trustees at the museum, so Mazow was aware of her impressive collection of American and European art. Eager to exhibit her works by Americans abroad near works in the permanent collection that point to similar tendencies, the museum created "Transatlantic Currents," a small but compelling exhibit that examines the pull exerted on American artists by European training and artistic output.

Milne Ramsey headed to Paris in 1868 to study with Leon Bonnat, only to stay for a decade and subsequently co-found the Society of American Artists in Paris. He's represented in the exhibition with a piece painted later in Philadelphia, "Turkish Still Life," that reflects the lessons learned during his Parisian academic training. The beautifully composed tableau contrasts the tactile qualities of soft red fabric slippers with the metallic hardness of a water jug and basin.

The influence of Èdouard Manet is evident in James Carroll Beckwith's "Monsieur est Servi/Le Café," which adoringly depicts a young Parisian waitress whom Beckwith undoubtedly encountered during his yearly visits to France. With her tray laden with wine and a cup extending toward the viewer, the artist creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy comfortably familiar to any 19th century cafe-goer.

Italy was as important a destination as France for American artists. Cincinnati-born painter Frank Duveneck settled there in 1879, developing a close bond with American artists such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Albert Bierstadt's "Boats Ashore at Sunset" romanticizes a beach near Capri, Italy, with dramatic boat silhouettes set against a rugged mountain range.

Such works, according to Mazow, reflect the strength of Knox's collecting eye. They show a keen understanding of the role played by both European historic sites and academies at a crucial moment in American art, when older traditions were giving way to more modern approaches.

"The Italian beach scenes by Bierstadt and Coleman show the tendency of 19th-century American artists to render picturesque shorelines," he says. "But these works also show Jane›s discerning eye in finding works that follow this innovative formula."

Knox's taste is impressive and many of the paintings reward the viewer who takes the time for sustained close looking, whether at portrait studies, seascapes, still life scenes or highly finished landscapes. Mazow says the array of genres ensures something for everyone.

Happily for art lovers, the works on display in "Transatlantic Currents" are promised gifts to the museum.

"Part of the museum›s mission concerns enhancing the lives of those in the Commonwealth and far beyond," Mazow says. "These rarely exhibited highlights from Jane›s collection bring rich life to visually stunning episodes in American art history, but also our cultural history."

"Transatlantic Currents" is the perfect lead-in to Hopper, a compact and illuminating reminder of how American painting evolved in a generation.

"Transatlantic Currents: American Art from the Collection of Jane Joel Knox" runs through Nov. 3 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Free.

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