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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879. The Jolly Flatboatmen. Oil on canvas, 38 1/8 × 48 1/2 in. (96.8 × 123.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Patrons’ Permanent Fund.
Summer is a grand time to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite the crowds it draws it never gets all filled up (except in the cafeteria at lunchtime), and the temperature is so divinely cool. But don’t be deceived by those aristocratic high ceilings and genteel atmosphere of unconcern: the museum is nevertheless packing them in.

According to a press release prompted by its annual report for the fiscal year ended June 30, it racked up a record-breaking 6.3 million visitors in FY15 (including both the main building on Fifth Avenue and its outpost, The Cloisters).

This is the highest number since the Met began tracking visitors more than 40 years ago; it is also the fourth year in a row that this total has exceeded 6 million, nor would the increase appear to be due solely to the fact that the museum is now open 7 days a week, instead of just 6, as this is the second year of its 7-day policy.

According to further statistics in the press release, visitors from New York City and the tri-state area surrounding it (New York State, Connecticut & New Jersey) accounted for 41 percent of this total, with international visitors from 189 countries accounting for another 38 percent.

My arithmetic indicates that this means American visitors from outside the tri-state area constituted only 21 percent of this total.

Aside from wondering a bit how the Met assembles such statistics (since nobody at the Met has ever asked me where I came from, and since not everybody pays for their admission tickets with a credit card), I can’t help comparing these stats from the Met with the overall statistics for New York City as a whole.

According to its official 2013 totals (the latest available at its website), the total number of visitors to the Big Apple was 54.3 million, of whom 42.9 million were domestic and 11.4 million, international—in other words, nearly 80 percent domestic and less than 20 percent foreign.

Putting these two sets of statistics together, I conclude that the average foreign visitor is nearly 7 times as likely to visit the Met as is the average domestic visitor.

Evidently, many more of those good people from Paducah (or wherever) prefer to stick closer to Times Square. There they can both batten on the over-priced & mostly simple-minded musical comedies playing in Broadway theaters, and ogle the “painted ladies” (or to use the more elevated term also employed, “desnuda”).

According to a plethora of reports, started off with a plentifully illustrated story by four reporters in the Daily News for August 15, these women have been multiplying like rabbits in that neighborhood this summer.

Clad as they are in little more than thongs, espadrilles, fancy headgear and with a dissected American flag painted over their naked breasts, these ladies are (supposedly) horrifying both tourists and the locals, but (apparently) doing a thriving trade in souvenir photos priced at $15 to $20.

According to the News, as long as these antics are part of a “performance,” there’s no law on the books currently that can stop them--and it may well be that they are more to the taste of Middle America than even the Renoirs and the Rembrandts at the Met.

The press coverage of this phenomenon led Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, and Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York State, to marshal a campaign to deal with it that (as a New York Times editorial remarked) was comparable to the sort of campaign mounted to deal with an Ebola outbreak--the difference being (I remark) that the painted ladies seem to have struck a responsive chord with many visitors -- and many locals.

Then again, what can you expect from a public that in a few short weeks has elevated Donald Trump to the status of a leading contender for the Republican nominee for U.S. President in 2016—arguably on the strength of his bigotry and delusions of grandeur (since he maintains that Mexicans are murderers and rapists, and that we should send our troops wholesale into the Middle East, to do outright battle with ISIS, and charge the countries thus invaded for our “support”)?

I hate to sound like a snob, but in watching his ascent, I have felt more and more impelled to check out an oft-cited saying attributed to H. L. Mencken. Here is what he wrote, in 1926 in the Chicago Tribune: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

These are sobering thoughts, which one needs to bear in mind when condemning the Met itself for grandstanding—as it does, with its whiz-bang displays of the latest whims in the postmodernist world on its roof every summer, and its ever-increasing emphasis on exhibitions of fashions in clothing.

The museum does get money from the city. To keep it coming, I suppose it has to demonstrate that it offers pleasure for the masses as well as the classes. I tried to remember this as I glanced over the rest of the Met’s press release, with its attendance stats for most popular shows.

Certainly, I was happy to see that “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” drew 316,095 visitors. That was a show for all seasons, fully deserving of such big attendance.

Another sizable attraction was “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered,” with 281, 687 visitors. This was a good show, too, but in my opinion not up to “Cubism,” so I was relieved to find that the Met’s visitors agreed with me on that.

With a sigh, I noted that neither show drew as many visitors as last summer’s whiz-bang rooftop presentation, by Dan Graham & Günther Vogt, with 559,876 visitors, or the haute couture show, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” with 505,307 visitors.

This year’s big Costume Institute show is “China: Through the Looking Glass.” It opened on May 7, so it had drawn only 358,381 visitors by the end of FY 15, but by July 28, the date of the press release, its total was up beyond 530,000, and its closing date had been extended from August 16 to September 7.

Thus it has already eclipsed Charles James, and may even outdraw Graham/Vogt, even if it will probably still stop short of the topmost Met blockbusters like “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” in 1976, and the million-plus people who lined up on Fifth Avenue in freezing February of long-ago 1963 to see the visiting “Mona Lisa” (half a million more had already seen it in DC).


Meanwhile, in my last visit to the Met, I saw three shows I want to discuss. The first and most beautiful of these three was “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy.”

This ambitious and captivating loan exhibition of some 200 works of art (both fine & applied) was organized by Navina Najar Haidar, curator of Islamic art at the Met; Marika Sardar, who has only recently left the Met for the San Diego Museum of Art; and Courtney Stewart, senior research assistant (closed on July 26).

These 200 works included many paintings, manuscripts and drawings, plus many more marvelously handmade and hence unique representatives of an ancient culture: armor, weapons, precious diamonds (by themselves or as parts of jewelry), architectural elements, furniture, tapestries, bowls, clothing, other domestic vessels and wondrous objects I can only classify as “miscellaneous.”

The thread uniting them was that most were made in five independent Muslim kingdoms (or, to be more exact, sultanates) who flourished concurrently on the Deccan plateau in south-central India after they declared their independence from the Bahmani Sultanate around 1518, and before they were annexed by the Mughal Empire in the late 17th century.

These states were Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, Golconda and Berar, although the show focused mainly on the courtly art from the first four of these, and also included a bit of work from the Bahmani period.

There were so many elegant objects in this show that I can only begin to mention a few that struck as me as more elegant than the others.

Normally, I prefer paintings and sculpture to objects made for practical purposes, and especially those paintings with enough space between the forms in them so that they don’t appear fussy or cluttered. Two such paintings that I related strongly to in this exhibition were the “Royal Elephant and His Rider” and the “Princely Deer Hunters.”

However, this was another one of those shows where the museum had to pass out magnifying glasses to visitors because the paintings were almost all so small and so full of detail that they couldn’t really be appreciated by the naked eye. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I find these magnifying glasses distracting rather than illuminating.

I suffered from this same shortcoming at “Wonder of the Age,” the last big & equally handsome show of Indian painting that the Met staged, in the winter of 2011-2012, but nothing has happened since to cure me of it, so I passed up the magnifying glasses and contented myself with contemplating wondrous little zoomorphic forms like the incense burner shaped like a peacock and the door knocker with horse and lion heads.

I even went for the sole item of clothing, the 18th century man’s robe (jama) with poppies on it, made of cotton embellished with gold leaf. Somehow clothing 300 years old & from half-way around the world has more resonance for me in a museum situation than couturier styles from New York, Paris, Milan or even London—maybe because it gives me some insight into a different civilization.


Undoubtedly, the most popular show of serious art at the Met this summer has been“Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends,” a loan exhibition of about 90 portraits by the American expatriate painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

It was organized jointly by the Met and the National Portrait Gallery in London, where it has already appeared, in a somewhat different (and possibly somewhat more challenging) form.

The chief curator in both locales was Richard Ormond CBE, an eminent British art historian specializing in Victorian painting and co-author of the Sargent catalog raisonné; in New York, he was aided by three more curators, all associated in one way or another with the Met (through October 4).

The premise here is that all the subjects of these many flattering portraits, in Sargent’s flamboyantly bravura style, were not only famous artists, writers, musicians, actors, society ladies and wealthy industrialists but also dear, dear friends of Sargent’s, and that the “sketches” that he dashed off and so often (if not always) gave to them are therefore more informal, daring and radical than any of his officially commissioned portraits of bankers, politicians and lawyers.

I have problems right away with this premise, and not just because I have difficulty finding anything very daring or radical about the paintings. True, all their subjects are very well-dressed, if often informally. When necessary, they come equipped with the appropriate settings & accouterments, too.

Beyond that, as paintings they’re pleasant, well done, proficient and all that, but only occasionally – as with one portrait of two haunted children – do I find anything more startling than what I’ve seen in other, supposedly more “commercial” Sargent portraits.

Even those two children remind me of Sargent’s masterful – and well-known – 1882 rendering of the four daughters of Edward Darley Boit. That painting is not in this show, though it does have a charming portrait of their mother. She and her wealthy, dilettante-painter husband are described on its label as “important patrons and supporters of Sargent’s”.

It could, of course, be that after nearly a century, we’ve simply gotten used to the kind of “novelty” these portraits by Sargent originally offered, but another problem I have is with this definition of “friends.”

I hate to sound cynical but I can’t help feeling a little bit suspicious about Sargent’s friendships with a lot of the subjects of his portraits here. Even abstract artists today may have difficulty establishing genuine friendships with anybody who isn’t either a fellow artist, or else so completely removed from the world of art that the subject itself never comes up.

Otherwise, there is sometimes (though not always) an undercurrent to the relationship, reflecting the possibility that the friend may or may not be able or willing to do something for the artist’s art, whether writing a review of it, displaying it at a gallery or museum, or best of all, simply buying it.

How much truer this must be for a portrait artist, whose commissions don’t only come from people with big art collections, but potentially from anybody who has seen his portraits of other people!

And how even more true this must have been in an era when sending a painting to a Salon or other major exhibition was both a recognized way to build or even establish a reputation and a great advertisement for further commissions.

I’m not saying that there may not have some altruism in Sargent’s offers to make portraits of his “friends,” but much of the work in this show seems to have been a bit self-serving (which I don’t disapprove of, except to the extent that the museum’s literature appears to deny such ignoble motives).

What are we to do about the London art dealer Asher Wertheimer, who commissioned the dashing portrait of himself in this show, and also (according to its label ) commissioned two portraits of his wife and nine more of his children?

How about the modest little head shot of Claude Monet that Sargent didn’t give to Monet but presented to the National Academy of Design in New York as his diploma work?

Even its label observes that besides reflecting Sargent’s veneration of Monet, with whom he’d – very occasionally -- painted, the gift ensured “that their connection would be publicly immortalized.”

Just as well, since -- besides Monet --- the only other artists whose portraits are included in this exhibition and whose own work can still be seen in museums and/or galleries are Auguste Rodin and the American William Merritt Chase.

All the other artists depicted are academics and/or minor figures who live on only in shows like this one. Indeed, in some ways this whole exhibition, with its many copious labels describing the achievements of its now-largely-forgotten subjects, suggests a convocation of yesteryear’s demimonde A-List.

Dare I suggest that Sargent himself was something of a social-intellectual climber?

In this group of about 90 paintings, I located only ten that I liked, that weren’t too phony baloney, and that had that extra little something -- maybe because all 10 struck me as relatively straightforward & sincere.

Some do appear to depict genuine friends, too, but others were commissioned or prompted by Sargent’s wish to create a showpiece. The moral here would appear to be that motives count for little in the successful creation of art.

Anyway, here are my chosen ten, in the order that they appear on the checklist: 1) “Carolus-Duran” (1879); French academic society portraitist and Sargent’s teacher; 2) "Charles Stuart Forbes” (ca. 1882 or ca.1889), fellow American expat who’d met Sargent in the atelier of Carolus-Duran; and 3) “Auguste Rodin” (1884), genuine genius whom Sargent knew socially but apparently not well.

Next on my list are 4) “Vernon Lee” (1881), a childhood friend of Sargent’s who’d grown up to be a prolific author, scholar & feminist—depicted in a severely tailored, masculine-looking high-necked black suit; and 5) “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” (1883-84), renowned picture of a Parisian society beauty in a suggestive black evening gown with a plunging neckline; caused a scandal when shown at the Paris Salon of 1884, and helped to establish the artist’s reputation (as he’d hoped – and planned—that it would);

The next three are 6) “Claude Monet” (1887); already commented upon; 7) “Eleanora Duse” (1893), legendary Italian actress, not a close friend of Sargent’s; and 8) “Henry James” (1913), longtime friend of Sargent’s, but this image commissioned by a group of James’s other friends;

And finally we have 9) “Edwin Booth” (1890), famous American actor, not a friend of Sargent’s; this painting commissioned by members of the Players Club in New York, which Booth had founded; and 10) “Mrs. Edward Darley Boit” (1887); see discussion above.


The paintings in this last show of three at the Met that I’m commenting on look stiff, naïve and almost amateurish by comparison with the theatrics of Sargent, or with the more brilliant subtlety of those Deccan miniaturists. Still, the show itself is the one of the three that I liked best.

Admittedly, this must be partly because it’s American art, and as such, more familiar to me, and further admittedly, from an artistic standpoint it’s modest. Still, it has a unique gentleness, luminosity and quaint serenity that made me feel both at home with it & able to relax.

The show is “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” a group of 16 paintings and more than 40 preparatory drawings by this 19th century frontier artist depicting life around and upon the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

It was organized jointly by the Met, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and the St. Louis Art Museum; it has already appeared at these two other venues.

The presentation at the Met was organized by its curator Elizabeth Kornhauser with the aid of Stephanie L. Herdrich (through September 20).

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was the first Western painter in the U.S. to become nationally – and even internationally—known, but his beginnings were inauspicious -- for an artist.

Born in Virginia, he moved with his parents in 1819, when he would have been about eight, to what was then still the Missouri Territory. Part of the Louisiana Purchase acquired by President Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. only 16 years before, it would not enter the Union as the 24th state until 1820, the year after the Bingham family arrived.

Young George soon realized he had a knack for drawing, and was prompted by earlier itinerant portraitists to dream of a career in portraiture himself. Self-taught, most likely with the aid of drawing manuals and prints of European Old Masters, he would ply this trade throughout most of his life, completing more than 500 portraits in all.

Along the way, however, he would also paint maybe 50 or 60 genre scenes and landscapes vividly chronicling the lives and times of what were still among the original settlers on or along the nation’s three great intersecting inland waterways: the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Bingham painted the riverboatmen, fishermen, gamblers and traders whose livelihoods depended upon these waterways, showing them at work and play. He also painted scenes of frontier democracy, showing a grass-roots political process in operation during an earlier and more optimistic era.

A committed member of the Whig Party, he was elected to the Missouri state legislature in 1848, and appointed Missouri state treasurer during the Civil War, but it was his renditions of life on or around those great rivers that established his wider recognition – with the aid of those reputation-mongers in New York and Paris.

In 1845, Bingham sent a painting entitled “French Trader – Half Breed Son” to the American Art-Union in New York. Amid an eerie stillness and atop crystalline waters, it shows a father, son and pet bear cub in a canoe, paddling their pelts to market.

The American Art-Union was a subscription-based organization that exhibited paintings annually, bought some of them and distributed prints based upon a chosen few of them to its subscribers.

It re-titled this painting “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” (broadening its appeal), exhibited it and bought it for $75 (the equivalent of about $2100 in today’s money – still a bargain).

The following year, 1846, Bingham sent it “The Jolly Flatboatmen,” a painting with a similarly idyllic background that shows a group of flatboatmen having a whale of a time.

They are all atop one of those boxy, flat-ended flatboats that were powered by oars, poles or (more often) by the current, and carried all manner of freight – from lumber and cotton to whiskey and pork -- downriver, for sale in states further south or to export abroad from New Orleans.

Two of those happy-go-lucky flatboatmen are playing musical instruments, while a third (in the center) is dancing like there was no tomorrow.

The American Art-Union liked this one so much that they bought it, made a print from it and sent copies of the print to their 9,500 subscribers across the U.S.

Not long after that, a prominent French publisher, Goupil & Co., issued a print related to Bingham’s “Raftsmen Playing Cards” (1847), thus spreading his fame clear across the Atlantic.

The show at the Met doesn’t have any of Bingham’s paintings of the political process. Rather, it confines itself to his paintings about the rivers, including the two best known ones, mentioned above, plus 14 others.

While some of these repeat similar or even identical themes, others depart in more unfamiliar directions. One painting that I hadn’t seen before, and very much liked, was “Landscape: Rural Scenery” (1845).

In contrast to what is otherwise an almost all-male exhibition, it depicts a woman, doing her laundry in the river with two small children romping about, and a cottage in the background. A huge, magnificent oak tree rises through the center of the image in a mighty upsweep: most invigorating.

I have to say that the preparatory drawings here didn’t do much for me. Almost all of them portray a single male figure, standing up or sitting down, and, although there may have been variations of costume or pose, they were only minor, not major enough to offer true variety.

Even in the oils, Bingham had a tendency to go for pyramidal compositions, which again become a tad repetitive. Still and all, this show, with its pinkish skies and sweet, almost childlike faces, creates a tranquil aura that offers a welcome respite from the noisy traffic outside on Fifth Avenue
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