Exhibitions: About Time: 700 Years of European Painting

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    About Time: 700 Years of European Painting

    • Dates: October 3, 2003 through January 7, 2008
    • Collections: European Art
    • Location: This exhibition is no longer on view in Beaux-Arts Court, 3rd Floor
    • Description: About Time: 700 Years of European Painting. [10/03/2003 - 01/07/2008]. Installation view.
    • Citation: Brooklyn Museum Digital Collections and Services. Records of the Department of Digital Collections and Services. (DIG_E_2003_European)
    • Source: born digital
    • Related Links: Main Exhibition Page
    Exhibition Didactics ?
    • About Time: 700 Years of European Painting
      Drawing on the Museum’s collections, this thematic installation explores how centuries of European artists chose to depict specific moments in time, as well as give a sense of time’s passage, in a variety of painting genres: landscapes, narratives, and portraits. It also looks at how the work itself bears the traces of the time invested in its making, whether a few instants or several years. Although this installation is not presented according to a strict chronology, the works are discussed in terms of the particular historical and cultural era in which each was produced.

      Each wall of this space is devoted to a particular time-related theme. The section called “Rural and Urban Rhythms” explores the workday and leisure time activities of the countryside and the city. “Processing the Landscape” surveys the formal methods that painters have used to render the landscape in “real time.” “Narrative Strategies” shows how artists distill the drama of a story into a single telling moment. And “Tracing the Figure” charts the enduring interest in the human figure, from portraits that place an individual in a clearly defined time frame to timeless abstractions of the human form.

      With its massive skylight, this space, known as the Beaux-Arts Court, prompts a particular awareness of the passage of time: as the day progresses, natural light slowly travels around the ambulatory, gradually illuminating one wall after another. Seasonal variations, such as the changing length of days or the shifting angle of the sun’s rays, as well as day-to-day changes of weather, produce a variety of lighting effects, which may offer a distinctly different experience of the work at any given moment in time.

      Finally, curatorial decisions concerning the paintings’ display and interpretation—which have changed with each installation of the Museum’s collection over the past century—further contribute to our sense of how time is reflected in these works, even as those decisions suggest the concerns and interests of the moment.

      This exhibition is made possible by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in celebration of its 25th Anniversary.

      Additional support is provided by Arthur Richenthal and two generous friends of the Museum.

      In addition to the works on view in About Time, we hope that you will also visit a small installation on the fifth floor of some of the collection’s rich holdings of fourteenth- through sixteenth-century Italian and Flemish devotional paintings.

    • The Impressionist Landscape
      Heirs to the open-air sketch tradition, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Gustave Caillebotte painted monumental “impressions”—that is, the seemingly spontaneous, rapidly executed landscapes and cityscapes that prompted the name of their movement. Although Sisley remained dedicated throughout his career to completing his paintings while still working in front of the outdoor subject, others of this group developed a highly methodical process that combined painting in the open air with re-workings in the studio. This practice allowed the artist to invest a great deal of time, sometimes years, in completing a work despite the highly improvisational appearance of brushstrokes in the image.

      Monet, represented here with several works, stands as the great exemplar of this blend of the impromptu and the deliberate. After selecting a subject, the painter positioned himself before it for hours over a series of days, if not months, substituting one canvas for another as dictated by changing lighting and atmospheric effects, and producing a series of works devoted to the same subject under different conditions. Unlike the open-air painters of previous generations, who used their oil studies to create new studio works, Monet collapsed the separate steps of the process, reworking the sketch itself to create the final painting.

      Installed at a consistent, eye-level height in this section, these works evoke the view of an artist painting at an easel in front of the subject. At the same time, their installation recalls the Impressionists’ break with more traditional Salon-style hangings, a display format utilized elsewhere in this exhibition, in which works are stacked one above the other. The Impressionists wanted their canvases to be hung at an easily accessible level, to draw attention to the painterly surfaces of the works and the traces of the creative process.

    • Rural and Urban Rhythms
      Comprising landscapes and genre scenes, this section explores explicit notations of time’s passage, in both urban and rural settings. The natural rhythms of daily and seasonal cycles, as well as the manner in which people live out their days and years, appear in these scenes of work and leisure.

      In the rural images of harvesting and shepherding presented here, human experience is inextricably linked both to nature’s measured patterns and to its unexpected whims. These preindustrial agrarian scenes, evoking the bounteous rewards and seeming timelessness of pastoral life, reassured well-to-do bourgeois viewers of the simplicity and stability of rural life in an increasingly mechanized world. By contrast, bleakly fatalistic images depicting the backbreaking rigors of working the land
      proved threatening to such reveries.

      The paintings of urban scenes also examine the patterns of everyday living, but here the daily routines seem more arbitrary. The hustle and rush of the boulevards, dotted with promenaders, and the rootless meanderings of homeless ragpickers out scavenging convey the new, unpredictable patterns of activity visible on the streets of a rapidly modernizing Paris. In their treatment of domestic interiors, some painters made major subjects out of such mundane daily activities as bathing, or even the concentrated solitude found in stirring a cup of coffee.

      Leisure pursuits or pastimes—respites from the routines of both rural and urban life—take place in the intermediary spaces between country and city, such as the tranquility of walled gardens.

      Judith F. Dolkart
      Assistant Curator
      Department of European Painting and Sculpture

    • Processing the Landscape
      The landscapes on this wall demonstrate two contrasting ways that time affects the painting process itself. On the one hand, there are quickly painted open-air sketches that provide a “real time” record of momentary atmospheric effects. On the other, there are carefully composed, painstakingly executed Impressionist works that nonetheless evoke the spontaneous with their gestural brushstrokes.

      For centuries, landscape painters had taken to the countryside with their sketchbooks, coming back with a catalogue of natural and architectural motifs that they would later integrate into highly idealized scenes conceived and executed in the studio. In the late eighteenth century, however, artists traded their quills and inks for paint boxes and brushes, adding the critical element of color to their on-site studies of transient natural effects. Theorists of the open-air sketch urged their fellow artists to record the essentials of the subject in a matter of minutes—at most, an hour or two—resulting in an improvisational shorthand that conveys form, color, and texture as they appeared at a specific moment in time. Once back in the studio, these shorthand images aided the artist’s memory in making large-scale studio works but were not considered finished paintings in themselves. The sketches received little art historical attention and entered museum collections only in the late twentieth century. The landscape sketches on view on this wall that were painted directly from nature reveal the immediacy and freshness that have become the hallmarks of the open-air study.

      From the 1830s to the 1870s, the artists of the Barbizon School took the improvisational touch of open-air painting and turned it into something monumental, in finished exhibition pictures of the pastoral landscape in and around the Fontainebleau Forest, just outside Paris. As the second half of this section demonstrates, their heirs—the Impressionists—likewise applied the aesthetic of the instantaneous, and a daring new palette, to highly calculated images of the landscape.

      Judith F. Dolkart
      Assistant Curator
      Department of European Painting and Sculpture

    • Tracing the Figure
      The portraits on this wall offer a range of encounters—intimidating, puzzling, or enchanting—with imperious noblemen, military heroes, fashionable sophisticates, and alluring peasant girls, as well as anonymous figures who are virtually abstractions.

      In addition to simply recording the sitter’s physical appearance at a specific moment in time, portraits reveal the pictorial means with which artists and their patrons jointly forged visual identities through decisions about facial expression, bodily gesture, costume, accessories, and setting. Those visual clues can be easily manipulated with imagination and a skilled hand. For example, the stiff formality of full-length, “grand manner” portraits, with their sweeping gestures and billowing draperies, announce the presence of an important public figure, while more intimately conceived images provide insight into the sitter’s private persona. Significantly, too, the fashions and postures of a particular moment in society quite literally “shape” the silhouette of a sitter’s body, from the round shoulders and wide hips of eighteenth century male court dress to the wasp waists of corseted nineteenth-century ladies.

      While some artists exploited physiognomy, setting, and dress in ways that helped to particularize specific individuals and perpetuate their memories, others deployed these elements in ways that instead reinforced broad, fixed generalizations about ethnic, regional, national, or professional “types.”

      In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists experimented with abstractions of the human figure. Even as they often removed specific clues to the subject’s identity and place, they nonetheless retained the essential characteristics of the human form in their images, distilling a timeless human identity.

      Judith F. Dolkart
      Assistant Curator
      Department of European Painting and Sculpture

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