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Little surprise

American painters cross the pond
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  February 3, 2010

'Portrait of the Art Dealer, Otto Fleischman,' oil on canvas by William Merritt Chase, ca. 1870-1879.

At the tag end of a dispiriting day of gallery visiting I happened into the Bowdoin College Museum to see their collection of Warhol Polaroids matched with a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. That's a sure recipe for ongoing gloom, but it was on my way, so I stopped.

I found instead an excellent small show that looks at American painters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who had gone, as was the habit back then, to Europe to polish their education and learn what was current. The paintings are drawn mostly from the Bowdoin collection with a few loans, so it's necessarily limited, but the European influence is much in evidence, and there are some sparkling pictures to enjoy.

The Warhol/Basquiat show, by the way, isn't worth the price of the lurid paint they chose for the gallery that houses it. Warhol's Polaroid portraits were among the most trivial of his efforts, done as yet another obsessive record of his love affair with fame and riches. The Basquiat painting is a poor one, but that pre-supposes good ones exist somewhere. Having seen more than my share, I'm not sure there are any, but it's in the nature of fame to draw attention to itself.

But to the older paintings, made when painting still meant something. Going to Europe in the 1880s would mean encountering the academic artists of the time like Bouguereau, the Barbizon painters like Corot, and the shocking research of the Impressionists like Monet. Like any gifted students, these Americans brought back what served their purposes.

William Merritt Chase's formal portrait of his somewhat ruddy-complexioned sitter "Portrait of the Art Dealer, Otto Fleischman" (1870-1879), builds its representational effect through its under-painting and barely-blended local colors. Chase had studied at the Munich Academy, and had learned to let the viewer's eye fill in the details that his paint suggested.

Contrast that with John Singer Sargent's 1887 "Portrait of Elizabeth Nelson Fairchild." Sargent, who possessed generous painterly gifts, had studied in Paris, and you can see the influence of his teacher Carolus-Duran. All but the face is laid in with broad, thick strokes — the face is smooth, careful, and glowing. Sargent was the Alex Katz of his day, or vice versa.

Thomas Eakins, who studied at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, stayed away from the new styles of the time. Here he is represented by the striking "Portrait of A. Bryan Wall" (1904), a careful depiction of a balding man with a high forehead and dark moustache. It's a fine portrait, showing an almost Rembrandt-like insight into the sitter's melancholy dignity.

There's a true Impressionist work, Mary Cassatt's fine big pastel "The Barefoot Child," and an American Barbizon painting, John Appleton Brown's "The Snuff Mill at Old Newbury," a country scene with a bright highlight on a little figure's hat.

John Sloan got his European influence second-hand from Robert Henri and then directly from the Armory Show in 1913. He had an acerbic feeling for New York street scenes, and painted them with a sure hand that conveyed a lot of information. The two gallivanting dressed-up young women in "Sunday Afternoon at Union Square" draw gossip from two onlookers on a bench and an admiring stare from a man behind them.

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Related: Living history, Slideshow: The MFA's Luis Melendez exhibit, Re-structuring, More more >
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