In the Music Room at the Taft, all of the paintings are grand. A few are truly monumental. In the Taft’s Sinton Room right now is an exhibition of another sort of painting, eight of them in all, the largest dimension of which is just a hair over a foot and a half tall. Deborah Scott, Louise Semple Taft President and CEO of the Taft Museum of Art, says that while she would “love to be able to draw shows from the permanent collection” as many comprehensive art museums can do, at the Taft there are no major works lurking unseen in storage; “99% of the collection is on view.” That leaves a rather small number of rather small pictures available to supplement the more familiar works of the permanent collection. It is from this population that this show was, for the most part, drawn. As the exhibition notes suggest, there are all sorts of reasons for paintings being small. Some were originally devotional objects where it might matter that you can form an intimate attachment to an image. Some are sketches, allowing the artist to work out formal problems on the fly. Many are designed for the marketplace where there will be works designed to fit many different sizes of domestic spaces—and many different sizes of bank accounts. A show of small paintings is partly going to be a show about middle class tastes and middle class fantasies, including the most fundamental fantasy—that of ownership.
Jules Breton’s “Fisherwoman…” (c. 1865-70) is a classic example of the oil sketch. A woman stands against a seaside backdrop turning away from the bright sun. The artist has not bothered to capture or impose an expression on her face yet, and there is no narrative to the work, realized or implied. Perhaps the painter’s eye was drawn to the blaze of the sun by the shore, or to what looks like the heavy clothing on the subject in spite of what seems like a perfectly warm day, or even to the way that the woman’s shadow seems like a stain on the dirt road. It is a work that could be seen to be in conversation with the Taft’s extraordinary canvases by Millet, who unsentimentally painted the ruggedness of rural life in the mid-19th century. It is interesting that, like most of the works in the show, the Breton is signed by the artist; the 19th century’s interest in artistic process transformed unfinished works into finished ones. One wonders how this sketch made its way from the artist’s studio to an audience, but it seems fair to guess that part of the excitement of owning an oil sketch like this is the thrill of feeling that you are looking over the painter’s shoulder while he is at work and that by witnessing the work in progress, you turn yourself into something of the artist’s comrade, if not his double.
The Taft’s recent show of British paintings from the Berger Collection made the point that as European middle class life in the 18th and 19th centuries started to take on the shape of middle class life as we know it today, citizens with aesthetic interests were becoming more worldly and found themselves in need of souvenirs of exotic places they had visited or could imagine. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps “Albanians” (1849) seems like such a work. Two soldiers, their weapons momentarily set aside, are enjoying a moment of leisure and music. They are pausing at sunset from their other duties amidst the ruins of an ancient building; this is what is left of the glory that was Greece. Their fierceness has been suspended, and perhaps even their foreignness, as they enjoy contemplation and artistic production. It feels fair to wonder whether that might be a portion of the painting’s intention: if the picture’s wild subjects can enjoy art, then so can its viewers and potential owners.
I take to heart the Museum’s suggestion that we can look at these domestically-scaled works and draw some conclusions about the interests, aspirations, and values of their intended audience and eventual owners. Frederic Van Vliet Baker’s “Portrait of a Woman” (1903) is an exercise in Japonisme, with its relatively modest subject overwhelmed by her Japanese clothing (there is a good deal more attention paid to the fabric than the face) and hair styling. If Decamps’s Albanians represent a form of implicit cultural appropriation, Baker’s young woman is an even more explicit example of a similar instinct. Middle class life seems to breed an appetite for souvenirs—objects to fetishize and signify the relationship to comfort, wealth, and mastery of the world around them.
The show’s tiny “Landscape” (1890s) by Jean Charles Cazin is 87 square inches of painting that is probably as close as anything in the Taft’s collection to Impressionism. The brush strokes are feathery, almost immaterial, and the colors are the luscious purples and lavenders of the 1890s. It is hard not to wonder what the Tafts’s collections might have been like had their tastes included the Impressionists. Underneath the “modern” colors and the brushwork, it is basically a scene of men working by the shore, loading boats with lumber—the Cazin’s original appeal, that is, may well have been as much in the composition’s roots in French realistic painting as it is in the whiff of Montmartre. It is a genre scene executed in purple.
Much has been made of the relationship between painting and didacticism, though not all of it is convincing. Sometimes descriptive works seem to me to have a didactic edge, and sometimes pictures that seem designed to illustrate a lesson end up moving well beyond what seems like their ostensible public purpose. Willem Maris’s “Ducks” (before 1907) is truly a work designed for a domestic space, and it seems as well to have a domestic subtext. A white duck is scooting off into a pond from the grassy shore with her ducklings more or less following her; a little bit up the hill, a more highly-colored male duck seems to be idly watching. It feels like there is something going on here about the careful and industrious mother carrying on in the face of the more diffident dad. The didactic also seems to be at stake in Adriaen van Ostade’s marvelous “An Old Toper” (c. 1660-65). Though it is as likely to be a “tranie”—a construction of a character “type”–as an actual portrait, an older man of limited means and austere plainness in his dress looks at us with penetrating eyes, gesturing towards a rather tiny glass he is holding while his pipe and lighters sit on a small table beside him. It might well be a case for moderation in appetite and relative abstemiousness, but I’m not convinced. If the man in the painting is making the case for moderation in drinking, I would say it is a position he has arrived at rather recently. The hand with which he is gesturing towards his glass is making one of those equivocal 17th century poses and while the point might well be to foreground a man who is drinking little and smoking less, it does not look like the hand that is holding the glass is going to give it up without a fuss. Let’s raise our glass to sobriety. As in many still lifes of the same period, it seems like the great Dutch paintings of the mid-17th century have mastered the art of being able to have your cake and eat it too—or, perhaps more accurately, to deny yourself the cake and yet still be able to enjoy it. And, also like other great Dutch paintings, it is luminously well-painted. Who else could make such plainness seem so sensual and have a greyish-brown backdrop positively glow?
The centerpiece of the show is “Village Interior” (c. 1850-60), attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. In a painting very much aware that it is the middle of a warm day in a warm season, one woman pauses in her labors while in the distance, another woman is walking a child down a wagon-rutted road which radiates ochre in the sun. Though the workers who pulled it together are currently nowhere to be seen, there is a pile of heavy stones in the lower left. It is a painting, in part, about work, and who has to engage in it out of doors; the neighboring buildings look cool and inviting by comparison. The Museum’s five other Corots tend to be part of the artist’s later career move towards cool, mythological spaces where figures–sometimes Mediterranean and sometimes mythological–typically confer in quiet joy. As Deborah Scott points out, the “Village Interior” “is a good counterpoint to the ones we have.” It is probably the earliest of the Taft’s Corots, and is a harder-nosed painting. In Scott’s words, “it is only in the leaves in the tree that you see Corot’s signature brushwork.” Indeed, without the febrile sketching in of individual leaves silhouetted against the sky, you might not have immediately recognized it as a Corot. Like the Breton sketch, it invites being seen against the Museum’s Millets, a great strength of the collection, as a vision of people as sturdy as the landscape that surrounds them.
The Corot is a new addition to the Taft collection (a gift of Minor and Daniel LeBlond in memory of R. K. LeBlond), which is in itself an unusual event. Many art museums are like sharks: they must continually feed their collections or die. Not the Taft. As Scott explains, there are legal restrictions about displaying newly-collected works intermingled with the Tafts’ core objects. The Museum has allowed itself to grow exceedingly modestly over recent years by accepting donations of works that can be pleasurably displayed in the hallways, rather than the individual rooms where they would hang next to the Tafts’ original donations. (Hence the focus on small paintings.) In addition, there are commonsense restrictions about building on a collection whose parameters, in terms of time and taste, are central to the Museum’s purposes and glories. (Hence no Picassos, no matter how small.) But now and then, the curators encounter something that gives them pause. Scott notes that “the works we seek out are very few and far between. But once in a long while, we’ll see something in a collection and follow up with a letter asking about it.” And from time to time, they are offered that work and it enters the collection.
When it does, it gets introduced to the public by shows like “Small Paintings from the Taft Collection.” Three years ago, there was a similarly-titled show designed to introduce another newly-acquired work to the Taft’s public, Frank Duveneck’s “An Italian Woman” (c. 1880), a 2012 gift of Stanley and Frances D. Cohen. It is an initialed sketch with a few casually elegant turpy brush strokes to constitute the background and a highly-finished study of a face at its center. Duveneck occupies a special place in the Taft’s collection because, Scott observes, “it explains why we allow ourselves to work with living artists. Duveneck was alive when the Tafts bought ‘The Cobbler’s Apprentice,’ which is among Duveneck’s very best paintings. To the Tafts, he was contemporary. That sketch of ‘The Italian Woman’ was a really meaningful addition to the Museum overall. Plus it’s a work we’re sure the Tafts would have liked. We asked for it and two years later, the Cohens offered it to us.” She adds that in this work, the gloom of the Munich school in which Duveneck was trained was replaced by “the light of Italy.”
Duveneck occupies an odd place in the canon of American painters of the Gilded Age. His work is really not terribly well known in Cincinnati and even less well known anywhere else. In reputation, he must compete with Homer and Sargent and the coming onslaught of Impressionists from both sides of the Atlantic. He had nothing of Eakins’s austere, even rigid gaze, and predated the urban realism of Henri and the Ash Can painters by a few crucial decades. Strongly shaped by the Munich school, which is largely unfamiliar to virtually everyone, he was deeply influenced by Baroque art, Venetian art, Dutch art, Spanish art, Courbet—his look was eclectic and international. This makes it hard to integrate him into the evolving narratives of what was American about American painting, which tended to try to make connections between 18th century portraits and 19th century landscapes. But the Taft’s sketch is remarkable—lovely, arresting, and thought-provoking. Duveneck gives to—or takes from—his model a severe beauty. She has rouged lips and a penetrating gaze. The picture is not designed to look casual or candid. She knows that she’s being painted and has her own opinions about that. She has the theatrical intensity of a model who knows how to strike a pose. I feel both her openness and her resistance. She meets our gaze with a look that challenges the painter and the viewer. There is nothing small about her.