Clark Art Institute's Summer Exhibitions

Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900 (through September 3, 2018)
City Transformed (through September 16, 2018)
The Age of Iron (through September 16, 2018)
Blind Eye (through October 8, 2018)
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA

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Williamstown’s venerable Clark Art Institute has four special exhibits on view this summer. Were they a baseball game, we’d score it two extra base hits, a single, and a whiff.

The season’s biggest show is Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900. I wish I could call it revelatory, but it’s not, and it’s neither the fault of the artists nor the show’s curators. A remark from Elizabeth Jane Bouguereau, the wife of famed academic salon painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, sums up the problem. She painted in her husband’s style and was considered at best a copyist. (Many critics insisted most of her works were actually done by her spouse.) Her reply was that she’d rather win renown as a fine replicator of William-Adolphe Bouguereau than be forgotten altogether.

This is another way of saying that female artists of the day enjoyed the light of the French countryside, the intellectual life of Paris, and each other’s company, but social shackles limited what they could do. This means that, though the paintings on display are well executed, most of them reinforce the cult of domesticity rather than challenge it. Most French women, in particular, largely basked in the stylistic light defined by men rather than generating their own heat. In other words, whether they dabbled in impressionism, realism, portraiture, or academic painting, they had to swab colors according to male rules. After all, it wasn’t until 1865 that Rosa Bonheur became the first female artist to win Legion of Honor recognition; there was no formal association of women artists until 1881, and no woman was admitted to the School of Fine Arts in Paris until 1897.

Those who obtained notice mostly did so through their associations with men. Berthe Morisot, for example, was married to Édouard Manet’s brother; Mary Cassatt’s career was aided by her friendship with Edgar Degas. As did Elizabeth Bouguereau, they also evoked male artists. Much of Morisot’s work is reminiscent of Renoir, and though Cecilia Beaux rendered white on white and black on black magnificently, her work invites comparisons to John Singer Sargent.

Mainly, though, there isn’t much tension in the works, mostly because women were not welcome to set up easels in cafes, racetracks, absinthe houses, or brothels. This means their subjects tend to be “safe” ones: themselves, each other, rural genre scenes, society drawing rooms, and women nurturing children. Often, they cross the border from sweet to saccharine.

The show’s biggest surprises come when we see something different. Cassatt has long been among my least favorite artists because her endless images of romanticized motherhood make me roll my eyes. But I really liked her self-portrait, which was rendered in looser brushstrokes and rougher finish than her mother-and-child staples. Cassatt, though, is topped by American Elizabeth Nourse, whose inward exudes self-confidence and a hint of insouciance.

My takeaway from the exhibit was that the paintings that stood out were those that took tentative steps across the line—and these usually came from Americans and Scandinavians. One exception, though, is Ukrainian Marie Bashkirseff, whose “The Meeting” does indeed capture grit, that of street boys. France’s Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s “Into the Blue” also captivates with a woman casually blowing cigarette smoke into the air as if she couldn’t care less what the observer thinks.  Britain’s Marianne Stokes portrays dark psychological gloom in her “Death and the Maiden,” which evokes the Pre-Raphaelites.


My personal favorites were Scandinavian women who seemed willing to unmoor themselves from social expectations. Many of those works fall into the category of symbolism. Norway’s Kitty Kielland captures unsettling light in her “Evening Landscape at Stokkavannet,” and there’s plenty of tension in the works of Finland’s Helene Schjerfbeck. Overall, though, this exhibit tries way too hard to make feminists of bohemians and hangers-on. A more honest engagement with the obstacles female artists faced is in order. 

A far more interesting look at 19th century can be found in the photographic exhibit City Transformed. It is a literal snapshot of Paris during the same crucial period between 1850-1900. Those who remember their European history will recall that, in 1852, Bonaparte’s nephew declared the Second Empire and took the name Napoleon III.

The Second Empire only lasted until 1870, but that was long enough for Napoleon III to charge George-Eugéne Haussmann with the task of transforming the city of grime into the City of Light. Today’s visitor to Paris sees little of the pre-Haussmann city. He so thoroughly remade the French capitol that in a dazzling 50 years, Paris hosted the world’s fair five times (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900). In 1889, a new icon arose: the Eiffel Tower. It so stunned the world that planners of Chicago’s 1893 exposition came up with Ferris wheel to rival the tower. As you can see in a photo from 1900, Chicago’s rejoinder was easily co-opted.

City Transformed gives us peaks at what Haussmann and his successors tore down. Note the center gullies of old cobblestone streets; they used to carry away the “slops” from chamber pots tossed into the streets in hope of timely rains. Featured photographers include Édouard Baldus, Charles Manville, Felix Thiollieer, and Eugène Atget, the last of whom is regarded as one of the masters of the early days of photography. This exhibit embodies the coming social changes of which Women Artists in Paris merely hints. 

The Art of Iron superbly takes iron mongering out of its normal context, isolates it, and hangs it at a level where we can appreciate it. It samples treasures found in a museum in Rouen, but it spotlights works from the improbably named Jean-Louis Henri LeSeq Destournelles (1818-82) and his son Henri (1854-1925).

It used to be that material culture was relegated to anthropological or folk art exhibitions. These days we have come to appreciate the beauty and intricate design that’s often inherent in everyday objects. This exhibit fits nicely with City Transformed, as anyone who has marveled over Parisian street lights or Metro signs knows first hand. It’s also a wonderful mix of craft and whimsy.


The Clark’s Stonehill Center currently houses Los Angeles artist Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye. It is the Clark’s first video installation—six computer-generated projections in which Steinkamp uses the Clark’s natural surroundings. The aim is to create hyper-reality with a 3-D effect. Alas, the impact is a big meh! It’s all pleasant enough, but one wonders about trying to improve upon what the naked eye can observe. Her installation of free-floating blooms is intriguing, but I doubt she was aiming at what it evoked for me: animated scenes from the Hollywood film Avatar. Maybe the Clark ought to leave this sort of thing to Mass MoCA.  

Rob Weir    

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