Intrigued by the challenge of capturing the play of water and light, Monet tested himself further by painting the transformative beauty of London’s fog and smoke in several works executed along the banks of the Thames in three winter painting campaigns from 1899 to 1901. Monet stationed himself on the balcony of Saint Thomas’ Hospital, across the river from his subject, switching from one canvas to another—nineteen in all—as changing weather and light conditions dictated.
Their neo-Gothic spires blunted by the mauve gloom of late afternoon, the Houses of Parliament emerge as a massive silhouette. Rays of pale sunshine break through the murk in the upper-right corner of the canvas and burst across the shimmering waters in overlapping strokes of pink, salmon, and yellow. The painter later reworked the canvas in his Giverny studio in 1903 in preparation for an exhibition the following year.
Steeped in the eighteenth century’s celebration of the virtues of the pastoral life, this painting offers a majestic, even heroic image of the peasantry of Breton’s native Artois. With the close of their workday signaled by the glow of the setting sun, three women, pink-cheeked yet seemingly unsullied by their labors, cross flowering potato fields. Endowed with the powerful musculatures of classical figures, the women bear the weight of an impressive yield. The promise of a convivial gathering after their work seems to beckon in the distance to the right, where groups gather around smoky fires. Breton’s blend of the purple thistles and the golden rays of the waning sunshine lends the work a rosy sentimentalism that earned the painter both critical praise and commercial success.
Ghirlandaio depicts the first half of the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, which Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) tells in his Decameron. Nastagio, spurned in love by a lady from an aristocratic family, broods upon his fate in the woods outside Ravenna, where he spies a horrifying scene: a mounted knight and his hounds pursue a naked woman, ultimately capturing her and tearing out her heart. The knight then explains that they are forced to enact this scene weekly as punishment for his suicide—precipitated by her rejection. Ghirlandaio unravels this tale episodically from left to right, by repeating the figure of Nastagio, with his bright, easily identifiable costume, and rhythmically spacing Ravenna’s distinctive pines as well as the peaks and valleys of the distant mountains.
About Time: 700 Years of European Painting
October 3, 2003–January 7, 2008
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. Among the artists represented are Davide Ghirlandaio, Frans Hals, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Giovanni Boldini, Pierre Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso. 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 of the four sections of the installation is devoted to a particular time-related theme. The section called “Rural and Urban Rhythms” contrasts 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.
The exhibition is installed in the Museum’s Beaux-Arts Court. With its massive skylight, the 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 other generous friends of the Museum.