Long time readers of this blog know I'm hopelessly in love with smaller art museums. They deliver. Partly because they usually hang work by slightly lesser known artists, you're likely to discover a gem by an artist you don't know or by someone who may have fallen off your personal radar. I was returning last month from a visit to the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (where I'll be showing a small selection of my paintings March 31 - May 13) and stopped by the Allentown Art Museum (AAM).
I had visited a few years earlier, but AAM had just completed an important expansion and I was eager to see the new spaces. Somewhat amazingly, the Museum has a top notch collection of Old Master paintings thanks to a big donation of work from the Kress Foundation. Here's a an oil by the grand daddy of all landscape painters, Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch 1628/29- 1682).
You have to spend a minute to let your eyes adjust to Ruidael's dark palette, but once you do you can fall in love with his inevitably cloudy skies. Ruisdael was huge to me when I was taking my first tentative steps out into landscape painting in 1970-71 when I was in my MFA program at Indiana University. I had a great art history teacher (who had a wonderful eye- I bet he had done some painting himself) who pointed out to me the hidden geometry in Ruisdael's clouds. Look at the topmost cloud in the middle of the sky in this painting- it looks like a giant tooth that has just gouged a chunk out of the distant mountain. Heaven and earth do a beautiful dance together in his work.
Speaking of heaven and earth, here's a painting by an artist I didn't know, Cornelius Saftleven (Dutch, 1607-1681) that I just love. I've always thought artists unconsciously (and often not so unconsciously) think of their paintings as dramas unfolding on a stage. This literally seems the conception as this angel appears through a "doorway" opening in a cloud that conveniently descends to earth. Saftleven pulls all of his lighter and warmer colors over to this far left side of his painting and pushes the cooler and darker colors to the right side, segregating the earthly space from his visionary space. I'm not a religious person, but when an angel comes for me, I sure hope they set the stage for it just like this. I'll become a believer on the spot.
Jumping forward two centuries, here's Thomas Anschutz (American, 1851-1912). He was a star pupil of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and went on to teach Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks (all of the Ashcan School of painters. I teach at the 2nd oldest art school in the US after PAFA, the Maryland Institute College of Art. And particularly pleasing to me is that Anschutz used to take the train down from Philadelphia to teach Life Drawing at MICA in the same room where I teach it every Monday. Some of our model stands and slate chalk boards are so old in that room I suspect it is seriously possible they are the same one's Anschutz used in teaching his classes.
In the Anschutz above, look at how the artist coordinates the model's pose with the props he's arranged before her. Like the straight backed chair, the woman stands erect. But see how her right forearm runs exactly parallel across the canvas to the highlighted broom handle. This is no accident and is almost certainly something Anschutz installed into his composition purposely. Unconsciously, our eye is always searching out connections like this between seemingly unrelated forms. When we see it in a painting we are pulled toward its composition even though exactly what attracts us might remain out of our awareness.
I always hope some of Anschutz's molecules are still floating around my Life Drawing classroom. I figure if they come home with me to my studio that can only be good luck.
Speaking of teachers of art, years ago I studied life drawing at the Art Students League of New York with this painter, Sydney Dickinson. AAM has a great Dickinson up. It's a painting of the woman who he would marry, with Sidney lurking back in the shadows. Quite a nice studio he had for himself! The painting is quite large but despite that it has a remarkably delicate light in it. That sort of thing is hard to pull off at such a big scale. Quite a good painting.
Two other treats at the Museum awaited me. When I was an art student at Oberlin College I often felt somewhat isolated from the larger art world. The College had only three artists on its faculty, and there were only a handful of studio art majors on campus. I tried to compensate for this by reading books about artists and by artists. Two of the latter that were especially helpful were Hiram Williams' Notes to a Young Pianter, and Maurice Grosser's The Painter's Eye. While I like their thinking, I'd never actually seen a painting by either. Happily both had work up. Below is AAM's Maurice Grosser painting of a cut open cabbage. I think its every bit as good as the best of Charles Demuth or Georgia O'Keeffe.
If you're anywhere near eastern Pennsylvania, take a trip over to Allentown and go to the Museum. You won't be disappointed.