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Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg puts American Impressionism on display

ST. PETERSBURG

The phrase "America's got talent" could have been used long before its current association with the popular television show.

The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg overflows with examples from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on loan from the Bank of America Collection. They're paintings, of course, not performances, but, like the participants on TV, we Yanks have always been great at appropriating others' ideas and making them our own. (In both cases there are good and not-so-good appropriations.)

In the latter half of the 19th century, Paris was the epicenter of the art world. Anyone who wanted to be someone went there. A talented passel of young painters from the United States began making their way across the pond to absorb the steady flow of traditional academic techniques as well as the swirling currents of a radical new movement that would come to be known as impressionism.

But our show begins a bit before that, with the Hudson River School and a work by Thomas Moran, View of the Fairmount Waterworks (1860-1870). He and others took more cues from British landscape painters who had romanticized their own countryside, along with Grand Tour stops in other European locales, for decades.

The American painters like Moran, though, were painting with a sense of discovery, documenting vistas that were part of the nation's push westward and were unknown to many of their countrymen. These paintings had a sense of wonder to them that their European counterparts lacked. Highly realistic in intent (though idealized in most cases), they can't really be considered to prefigure impressionism, though there is a strong link in the way they used light effects and colors, influenced by British artists such as J.M.W. Turner, who is considered an impressionist precursor.

Moran's painting incorporates those qualities but is solidly set in the conventions of landscape painting. A pastoral foreground of trees and meadow rises up like brackets, framing a broad sweep of water in which a beautiful building emerges, Brigadoon-like. A group of well-dressed men and women enjoy this dramatic scene from a distance, their tininess emphasizing the large scale of the vista.

But — and here's the interesting American part — Moran's focal point isn't a picturesque ruin or fabulous castle, as it would have been for his overseas colleagues. Nope, he gives us the Fairmount Water Works. This industrial plant on a riverbank supplied water to nearby Philadelphia and was considered a modern technical marvel. Its neoclassical design was, by the way, uncharacteristically lovely for such a utilitarian function, and Moran elevates it further to the same heroic status as any Old World palace.

In this painting we see, as we do throughout the large exhibition of 120 works by 70 artists, a particularly American characteristic, the independent streak that led these men (and a few women) to their own vision and version of European art they respected but didn't want to copy by rote.

That said, there are some oddities in the name of experimentation. George Bellows, he of visceral boxing matches and urban angst, actually tried his hand at rural subject matter. Old Farmyard, Toodleums (1922) is, frankly, a mistake. Dark and dense greens collide with a sunlit space in which a haystack, painted to resemble a bad wig, holds the eye. The farmer and cow are shadowy losers in the composition. Birds, improbably shaded in purple, flutter from a dovecote, trying to escape the scene.

I found myself lingering in front of it, mesmerized, and realized I felt gratitude for getting to see it. Most shows try only to skim the cream from the top of an artist's catalog, and here we have a rank failure that shows us its virtue in the pursuit of success. Bellows was an excellent painter, even pretty good at softer subject matter. A 1923 portrait of his wife and daughters (not in this show) is textbook early Manet. But he knew it when he found the subject matter that suited his gifts and didn't waste his talent on romancing the roan.

Most of the artists in the show found their metier in various forms of impressionism and its offshoots. Robert Spencer's Afternoon Bathers borrows the swift, short brushstrokes of Monet for contrasting colors that would never have made their way onto the Frenchman's palette. There's energy in this painting. Unlike the contemplative swoon of pastel water lilies, it wakes you up.

Birger Sandzen does a similar backhanded homage in Farm on the Smokey (1941) with Van Gogh (a post-impressionist) as his technical muse but using soft colors that never entered the Dutch painter's tortured mind. Same can be said of Charles Foster Ryder's In the Mountains (1910) with its brash blue fauvist mountain rising up from a normal landscape.

If you visit this show expecting masterpieces, you will be disappointed. Even the best-known names aren't represented by their best work here. (Exhibit A: the aforementioned George Bellows.) I admit that I had never heard of some of the artists.

Isn't that the point of learning?

I love revisiting beloved masterpieces. I'm sure you do, too. But exhibitions like this one make up for the lack of them in their numbers and surprises. We see deeply into the aesthetic psyche of America during this time period with so many paintings, most of them very good, a few very fine.

A striking point reinforced in it is that as time goes on, American artists who admired the impressionist precepts become far less inventive in interpreting it. The invention seems to come in new movements in more realistic styles. This is a broad and rare survey that teaches us a lot about American ingenuity. And, yes, talent.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

. IF YOU GO

Transcending Vision: American Impressionism 1870-1940

The exhibition continues through Jan. 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $16 adults, $14 seniors and $10 students 7 and older. (727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org.

Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg puts American Impressionism on display 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 5:30am]
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