I passed by the painting once. Then a second time. And again for a third time.
At last, I remembered my mantra for art that does not immediately catch my eye: Look closer.
Claude Lorrain’s "Pastoral Landscape" (1628-1630) is, no escaping the fact, a landscape. At this point, like any other lifelong art lover, I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of landscapes. Especially idealized landscapes, like this one, that mingle classical themes along with the faithfully sketched countryside, in this case, in the vicinity of Rome.
What made this one significant at the Blanton Museum of Art, now open to the public with pandemic safety measures in place: This Lorrain transcends the genre.
But first, the state of the museum after months of pandemic. I had just visited the equally well-regulated and virtually uninhabited Bullock State Museum of Texas History across the street. (I relished the quiet at both museums more than I should admit.) I was greeted outside the Blanton’s entryway by a ticket taker — reserve your ticket online in advance at blantonmuseum.org — perched behind a protective barrier, and also a second person who explained the protocol inside.
Once enveloped by the blue of the atrium, one first notices a new pop-up museum shop. The ground-floor galleries, which usually tempt the visitor with their well-curated temporary shows, are blocked off.
So up the stairs and to the right to soak up gallery after gallery of art, where I was particularly impressed by a Frida Baranek’s twister of iodized metal wires and plates, and also a small room of fresh art grouped under the title "Mexico: Between Epic and Poetry." Every piece here is a gem.
A lot of the other works are old friends going back to the 1980s, when what is now the Blanton was squeezed into the lower floors of the Harry Ransom Center.
Crossing to the Blanton upper floor’s west side, I confirmed the merit of its Spanish colonial art: royal and religious images wrapped in gilt frames. Then I circled around the museum’s small but charming group of antiquities; lingered inside its exemplary print and drawings rooms; then plunged into the European paintings, many of them furnished by the Suida-Manning Collection, assembled by a family of art historians and acquired by the museum dramatically in 1998.
It was these paintings — mostly Old Masters, mostly Italian — that finally gave the University of Texas museum a claim to a reasonably comprehensive heft, a difficult thing for a museum to achieve these days, unless it can access limitless funds, like the Getty Center in California or the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, the latter endowed with Walton wealth.
It was among these lusciously embellished surfaces that I rediscovered the Lorrain.
My eye first followed the light to the center of the painting. It is blue, white, pink and yellow sky, presumably at dusk, framed on three sides by deep green shadows cast by large, loosely painted trees.
Next my eye landed on a residence roosting improbably on a rock outcropping, itself hollowed out by an arcing cave.
Years ago, I would have found this building placement perplexing, but I now have seen so many photos on social media of real monasteries, convents, castles, churches and other large old structures nesting on ledges, cliffs and mountaintops, I accept such a vision with just a few reservations.
The point of the painting, however, is hidden in the shadows where one finds ghostly sheep, goats and cattle grazing in a meadow. Nestled among them is a couple of ostensible shepherds, entwined, perhaps lovers. A third human daubed in bright white paint can be seen at a discreet distance, apparently making music on a piping instrument.
The wall text indicates that Lorrain sought to portray harmony between man and nature. That is true, but here nature overshadows and overwhelms the shepherds. Not in a threatening way, certainly, but drowning them in the pleasurable scenery that surrounds them.
Lorrain betrays none of implied moral license that such a pastoral love scene would have provoked during the next century by painters such as Watteau, Boucher or Fragonard. Instead, Lorrain ensures that the whole coalesces through durable composition, harmonized color and subtle tension between the natural and the human elements.