Spring comes early to Atlanta at Skylight: Landscapes, Traditional & Contemporary on view at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art through March 9. The museum presents drawing, painting and prints from the 19th and 20th centuries as well as a few from a newer generation of contemporary artists working in landscape.
The exhibition, organized by OUMA director Elizabeth Peterson and collections manager John Daniel Tilford, fills the museum’s three galleries. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Gallery, the largest, is reserved for what the museum calls the strength of its permanent collection, mostly 19th-century French works on paper, etchings, lithographs and drawings, largely gifts of Drs. Yolanta and Isaac Melamed.
Eugène Boudin, represented by the newly acquired Pâturage aux moutons, côte normande takes his place among the genre’s stars — Corot, Bonnard, Pisarro — as well as others well known in their own time but with whom we are less acquainted today. Two of these lesser-knowns were among my favorites. Gustave Leheutre is represented by three etchings on laid paper, each an intricate, yet spare, scene of 19th- and early 20th-century village life. Georges-Dominique Rouault’s watercolor, Le Square du Vert Galant, Paris, depicts a river with bridge and church spire in the distance. One of the few oil paintings in this collection, Maxime Maufra’s La Glace etans de Ville d’Avray, is a wonderful scene of a country home glimpsed through evergreen trees on the other side of a frozen pond.
Historical background would enhance the viewing experience. I wish the museum had helped place these wonderful works in the context of their time and art history with notes or wall text. In early 19th-century France, the conservative codes of the powerful French Academy placed landscape painting so far down the hierarchy as to be completely dismissed. Painters were expected to emulate the artists of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Pure landscape painting was not an option. In 1816, the academy introduced the Prix de Rome, a prize in historical landscape painting. French painters traveled to Italy where, in the countryside outside Rome, they experienced nature, seeing instead of copying. The prize had been designed to help restore painting to its 17th-century grandeur but had the unintended consequence of fostering landscape painting as an independent subject.
Free from the rigors and limitations of historical perspective, painters now thrived in the freedom of direct observation and understood that landscape’s metaphoric power was worthy of investigation. Back home, French artists found no place more compelling than the 42,000-acre forest of Fontainebleau, only a short train ride from Paris. Its meadows, gorges and most of all its forests of huge and varied specimens of trees quickly became a popular destination. The Barbizon school of painters, as it came to be known, took its name from a village near the forest, but the style transcended a particular place and came to represent the ideal of painting realistic scenes that could stand alone, simply, beautifully and without need for historical content.
This point is illustrated most beautifully in the museum’s intimate and dimly lit Center Gallery. Gathered here are delicate, mostly small works in light-fugitive materials of ink, pastel and watercolor on paper. There is poetry in the fact that the materials used to record a moment that can, in the wrong light over time, be as ephemeral as the moment it recorded. Intimate sketchbook drawings in pencil or watercolor whisper to us across the years.
Their preservation reinforces a simple but powerful notion: by noting what they see in a particular moment on paper, artists preserve that moment for us to experience 150 years later. Despite the vagaries of changing styles and influences, that immediacy is still unrivaled in its power to connect.
Standouts in this room are an 1835 Corot sketch, Italian Town Seen Through Trees, and a 19th-century postcard-sized watercolor by Gustave Doré, among 17 works loaned by Dr. and Mrs. Michael Schlossberg.
The best (and perhaps the only) pairing of the show goes to the fabulous 1869 sketchbook drawing in pencil of a fallen tree by Maxime Collignon and a watercolor of the same name by William Havell — a sepia and apricot treasure courtesy of Thomas Deans Fine Art. Seeing the two together made me wish the museum had elevated the conversation by creating more such juxtapositions.
The three contemporary artists in the Skylight Gallery were selected to link 21st-century landscape abstraction to the long-established traditions of landscape painting. Larry Gray presents light-filled, anonymous skyscapes in oil on canvas or dry pigment on paper. Courtney J. Garrett’s oils on canvas are atmospheric compositions that evoke clouds in the gray-green sky of an approaching storm, though her titles, for instance Dissipation of Composition No. 9, save the work from direct reference to such. Both artists appear courtesy of Alan Avery Art Company. Charlotte Terrell, courtesy of Pryor Fine Art, is represented with two idealized landscapes in mixed media.
The curators cited the contemporary paintings as a natural evolution “from the nineteenth century language of Impressionism in their innovative use of light and freedom of form.” Unlike the 19th- and 20th-century landscapes seen here, these newer works all seem designed to elicit an experience or emotion rather than depict a real place. Perhaps these three are closer heirs of the post-Impressionists, or even the Expressionists, who supplanted the realist impulses of the Impressionists with sources of inspiration that were less easily recognizable.