Exhibitions: About Time: 700 Years of European Painting

Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta (Spanish, 1870–1945). Portrait of Anita Ramírez in Black, 1916. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 18.41

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.

Rural and Urban Rhythms

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 scenes of work and leisure. In rural images of harvesting and shepherding, human experience is inextricably linked both to nature's measured patterns and to its unexpected whims. Paintings of urban scenes also examine the patterns of everyday living but convey the new, unpredictable patterns of activity visible on the streets of rapidly modernizing cities.

Processing the Landscape

The landscapes in this section 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. 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. As heirs to this tradition, the Impressionists applied the aesthetic of the instantaneous, and a daring new palette, to highly calculated images of the landscape.

Narrative Strategies

For centuries, artists painted narrative subjects to instruct viewers with powerful lessons about sacrifice, patriotism, honor, and heroism. Prime subject matter for these moralizing images included the lives of the saints and the Passion of Christ, the loves and intrigues of the classical gods, the noble acts and treacheries of history's great figures, and the trials and triumphs of literary protagonists. This section of the installation explores how painters endowed their medium with the dramatic intensity of the tale, distilling powerful, complicated narratives into a single telling moment or a very limited series of incidents.

Tracing the Figure

The paintings in this section 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. 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. While some artists exploited physiognomy, setting, and dress in ways that helped to particularize specific individuals and perpetuate their memories, others in this section deployed these elements in ways that instead reinforced broad, fixed generalizations about ethnic, regional, national, or professional "types." Finally, avant-garde artists experimented with abstractions of the human figure, often removing specific clues to the subject's identity and place but retaining a timeless human identity.

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.

Exhibition Highlights

Davide Ghirlandaio: Scene from Nastagio degli Onesti Jules-Adolphe-Amie-Louis Breton: The End of the Working Day Claude Monet: Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight