A Grand Tour 

Major traveling exhibit of European paintings offers chance to see remarkable works by Fra Angelico, Degas and many others

Look at the tags in the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum, and you notice the recurring names of extremely wealthy people whose personal collections helped form the foundations of great museums.
Look at the tags in the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum, and you notice the recurring names of extremely wealthy people whose personal collections helped form the foundations of great museums. At those museums the collections lose their individual identity, mixed in as they are with other collections and the museum’s own acquisitions. When you do see an individual’s collection, personality and storylines emerge: Dominique Menil’s museum in Houston makes the case for surrealism, Duncan Phillips’ in Washington shows abstract expressionism as the summation of painting from the mid-19th century. The Tennessee State Museum is currently showing art from a major collection assembled by Gustav Rau, which offers a similarly personal take on art’s broad outlines. Rau was born into a German family of industrialists and as a middle-aged man in the 1960s sold his family auto parts manufacturing business, trained as a doctor and dedicated himself to public health in Africa. Around the same time, he also started buying art and ended up with a collection of about 1,000 pieces. Initially he planned to build a museum for this collection in Marseilles, but those plans fell through. Instead, Rau decided that, upon his death, his estate would sell off the paintings, with the proceeds to support UNICEF-Germany. However, he selected 200 paintings—the ones currently showing in Nashville—to exhibit on a traveling basis for two years before sale. This selection has two dimensions: a representative overview of painting from the 15th century into the 20th, and a deeper foray into the Impressionists and their immediate heirs. The overview section of the exhibit has a surprising number of single paintings by very prominent figures—El Greco, de Ribera, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ter Borch, Canaletto, Dolci. A personal collection like this also tends to draw attention to works by artists you might overlook in the setting of a large museum; such pieces take on prominence when seen through the eyes of the collector who purchased and valued them. Rau was born into a German family of industrialists and as a middle-aged man in the 1960s sold his family auto parts manufacturing business, trained as a doctor and dedicated himself to public health in Africa. Around the same time, he also started buying art and ended up with a collection of about 1,000 pieces. Initially he planned to build a museum for this collection in Marseilles, but those plans fell through. Instead, Rau decided that, upon his death, his estate would sell off the paintings, with the proceeds to support UNICEF-Germany. However, he selected 200 paintings—the ones currently showing in Nashville—to exhibit on a traveling basis for two years before sale. This selection has two dimensions: a representative overview of painting from the 15th century into the 20th, and a deeper foray into the Impressionists and their immediate heirs. The overview section of the exhibit has a surprising number of single paintings by very prominent figures—El Greco, de Ribera, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ter Borch, Canaletto, Dolci. A personal collection like this also tends to draw attention to works by artists you might overlook in the setting of a large museum; such pieces take on prominence when seen through the eyes of the collector who purchased and valued them. By the time Rau got started collecting art, paintings by certain Old Masters like Raphael, Rembrandt or Leonardo would not have been widely available on market. The early parts of the exhibit have thin coverage, but several paintings of great quality. The most striking pieces are the paired portraits of St. Nicholas of Bari and St. Michael, painted by Fra Angelico in the early 15th century. Fra Angelico was one of the leading painters of the early Renaissance in Florence, and these two works show the ways he was a conservative artist, combining naturalistic modeling of figures with abstract gold leaf backgrounds that were typical perhaps 100 years before these images were executed. Fra Angelico also used the new practices of perspective painting and naturalism as it suited his needs for religious expression; the lustrous gold background and rich blue colors of the robe convey a celestial quality that gives the subjects a tangible spiritual nature. Other Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings include a Bernardino Luini portrait that was once attributed to Leonardo, and you can see why in its delicacy and grace. A fine Guido Reni painting of David and Goliath shows the denouement of the story, when the young man beheaded his slain foe. Rau’s collection of Dutch painting includes two pieces by less well-known artists that stand out. Jan van Goyen’s landscape “Storm,” from 1637, shows a man sitting next to a wooden structure, watching as fierce dark clouds fill the sky. The painting includes some of the same colors, like the yellowish ochre of the ground, and atmospheric mixing of color and form in the sky, that you find in J.M.W. Turner’s revolutionary mid-19th paintings of similar subjects. This more naturalistic painting by van Goyen suggests that Turner’s work is firmly based in the physical phenomenon he was observing.   A portrait of a mature man by Frans Pourbus the Younger has qualities similar to the somewhat later portraits of Rembrandt—its colors, and an expression that captures calm alertness in flesh that shows its subject’s age. This painting does not have quite the same complexity of modeling and depth of character, but it provides a context for Rembrandt, showing that he developed out of a strong prevailing practice of portraiture. Stark images predominate in Rau’s German paintings. There is the 15th century “Last Judgment,” where Christ and the saints oversee the separation of the saved and the damned, and a Lucas Cranach interpretation of Judith holding the head of Holofernes, flanked by two attendants. The most gruesome item in this section is Jakob Strüb’s early 15th century painting “Saint Acacius and the Ten Thousand Martyrs,” based on the legend of an early saint who inspired Roman legionnaires to refuse to sacrifice to pagan gods, leading to their martyrdom. The saint, dressed in archbishop’s vestments and holding a book and crozier, is surrounded by the dead legionnaires impaled in the trees, echoing Christ’s death. He droops in his chair, and the dead martyrs float around him like bodies abandoned in water. This collector’s passion lay with the Impressionists. His selections for this show are deepest and most representative for Monet, Pissaro and Sisley, and include works by Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Caillebotte, Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec. The five Monet canvases cover 30 years of the artist’s long career, including a view of the Port-Coton Pyramids, vibrant with blues and greens, and more unusual images like a flood on the Seine shown from a low angle almost on the water. Degas is represented by a pastel self-portrait from late in his career that shows the kind of details that give his work an eerie psychological undertone—the wells of his eyes are highlighted by dark red curves, and a drawing of a woman in the background seems to rise out of his head. These details probably reflect Degas’ awareness of his diminishing eyesight at the time, but they also produce a complex portrait of mourning, anger and a mind in which identity, ideas and images intermingle freely. The French paintings in this exhibit include a Fragonard portrait and a Boucher, but the most interesting is a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. A painter in the French court just before the Revolution, Vigée-Le Brun went into exile and was active well into the 19th century. Her subjects were typically women and children, resplendent in their finest clothes, with the woman showing remarkable liveliness and perception. The portrait in Rau’s collection, of Charlotte Ritt, dates from the painter’s exile in St. Petersburg. The woman is less imposing, more simply dressed and loosely rendered, a quieter, darker and more intimate image than what one usually associates with Vigée-Le Brun. It seems to show a modesty that may reflect the displacement of the ancien régime. This collector’s passion lay with the Impressionists. His selections for this show are deepest and most representative for Monet, Pissaro and Sisley, and include works by Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Caillebotte, Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec. The five Monet canvases cover 30 years of the artist’s long career, including a view of the Port-Coton Pyramids, vibrant with blues and greens, and more unusual images like a flood on the Seine shown from a low angle almost on the water. Degas is represented by a pastel self-portrait from late in his career that shows the kind of details that give his work an eerie psychological undertone—the wells of his eyes are highlighted by dark red curves, and a drawing of a woman in the background seems to rise out of his head. These details probably reflect Degas’ awareness of his diminishing eyesight at the time, but they also produce a complex portrait of mourning, anger and a mind in which identity, ideas and images intermingle freely. The collection extends into the 20th century with artists most closely related to the Impressionists in style, like Bonnard, Vuillard and Maurice Denis, and a few Fauves like Andre Derain and Expressionists like August Macke. The offerings peter out after the high-water mark of Impressionism. It seems that cubism, abstraction and surrealism did not interest Rau. One thing an art collection shows is the range of the collector’s ability to appreciate art. Everyone has limits to what they can appreciate, and we can expect those limits to be drawn when someone is paying for the privilege of having the objects close by. The two sides of this exhibit, with its condensed trip through the touchstones of European art and the deeper but still intimate view of the Impressionists, offer the satisfactions of the familiar and unfamiliar. You have a chance to see one of El Greco’s saints and Cézanne’s landscapes, as well as paintings by less well-known figures who have value in their own right. 

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters





* required

Latest in Art

All contents © 1995-2014 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation