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Not a blockbuster, 'Turner to Monet' exhibit brings a boutique view of 19th-century painting to the Blanton

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

It would be tempting, at first glance, to categorize "Turner to Monet: Masterpieces from the Walters Art Museum" as a blockbuster exhibit of Impressionist art.

There's the luminous Monet painting, "Springtime," featured prominently in exhibit ads, on billboards around town and on the banners outside the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art. A satellite museum shop has sprouted at the exhibit's exit stocked with Impressionist merchandise from silk scarves to Monet dolls. And there's a raft of exhibit tie-ins with local businesses.

There are harbingers of what the crowds for "Turner to Monet" will be like, too: About 1,500 turned out one evening last week for a members-only preview event, creating a line inside the museum to get into the exhibit. (A maximum of 325 people are permitted in the exhibit gallery.)

But "Turner to Monet" is not a blockbuster exhibit. Nor does it focus solely on the kind of Impressionist eye candy that typifies so many made-to-be-crowd-pleasing exhibits. (San Antonio's McNay Art Museum and Houston's Museum of Fine Arts feature Impressionist exhibits this autumn; in Paris, the Grand Palais just launched a major Monet retrospective.)

With 40 paintings from the vaunted Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, "Turner to Monet" offers a tight overview of the main currents of 19th-century European and American painting. It goes from the tussle between neoclassicism and romanticism that started the century off to the emergence of genre and landscape painting that challenged the prevailing academic theories. And then it looks at the emergence of Impressionism as a revolutionary aesthetic movement that held sway for just a couple of decades before petering out by the end of the century.

"Turner to Monet" provides a fascinating glimpse of something else, too. Many great collections amassed by Gilded Age industrialists have been absorbed by the nation's benchmark museums (sugar baron Henry Havemeyer's collection kick-started the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and railroad-car manufacturer Charles Freer's art went to the Smithsonian). But the Walters collection has remained intact and in one place. Started by railroad financier William Walters and then continued by his son Henry, the assemblage of 22,000 paintings, sculpture and decorative objects was bequeathed to the city of Baltimore along with the Walters estate, now the location of the museum that bears their name.

It's sometimes easy to forget that what lines museum walls today represents the particular — and idiosyncratic — tastes of powerful, not always art-savvy people who were as intent on rapidly building America's cultural capital as they were on buying pretty pictures for their mansions. (William Walters acquired paintings only of modest size so they would fit in his picture parlor.)

One of the more interesting features of the Blanton's presentation of "Turner to Monet," which has had only one other showing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art earlier this year, is a gallery featuring a timeline that charts the developments of notable 19th-century American collections vis-à-vis the European cultural establishment.

But what paintings those American collectors did buy.

The Blanton's gracious, easy-to-navigate installment of "Turner to Monet" allows the visitor plenty of visual space to contemplate the largesse of the father-and-son team.

With his interest in then-contemporary European and American art, William Walters positioned himself somewhat in the vanguard of his peers who typically chased Old Master paintings.

One of the first paintings that greets visitors to the exhibit is "The Catskills," by Asher B. Durand, master of the Hudson River school of painting. Walters commissioned the luminous landscape, paying Durand $1,500 and requiring the painting be sized to fit into his parlor. (It measures about five feet by four feet.) Americans were quicker to accept the natural landscape as a noble subject for art — a definitive break from the European academic school of painting that declared history, religion and mythology as more worthy subjects.

Of course, in their efforts to build a comprehensive collection, the Walters acquired neoclassical pictures that epitomize the academic tradition, Ingres' "Oedipus and the Sphinx" being the most striking example in the current show, with its highly polished brushwork and precisely delineated figure of Oedipus.

Romanticism found its way into the Walters collection, too. Three pictures by Delacroix shine, especially the dramatic "Christ on the Sea of Galilee," with extravagant brushstrokes and ominous sky.

Demonstrating perhaps a certain democratic approach to his art-buying habits (he left few records of his collecting philosophy), William Walters acquired numerous examples of realist and genre painting that emerged in the mid-1800s — a style previously dismissed by artists of the academic tradition who deemed scenes of common people and places as insignificant.

But artists such as Jean-Francois Millet and Honoré Daumier rendered scenes of country and urban life not with a sense of idealization, but with more of a sincere appreciation and recognition of contemporary 19th-century life. In the United States, unlike in Europe, paintings featuring such naturalistically rendered scenes of everyday environs were tremendously popular. The current exhibit features three Millet pictures, including "The Potato Harvest," one of the artist's major paintings, recognized specifically by its coarsely textured canvas, a technique expressive of the scene of hard-working peasants in a rustic field.

Never receptive to the work of the Impressionists, Henry Walters acquired relatively few such paintings after his father died in 1894, and then did so likely out of a sense of maintaining a thorough historical trajectory to the collection. (Like his father a very private person, Henry was reticent about his aesthetic philosophy, too.) In fact, in 1909, after Henry purchased Manet's lovely painting "At the Café," the collector left it in its shipping crate, allocating it to his basement, where it sat unopened for years, according to William R. Johnston, Walters Art Museum curator emeritus.

What a difference a century makes.

There was plenty of desire to bring "At the Café" and the other highlights of the Walters collection to town.

Austin philanthropists Joe and Teresa Lozano Long contributed $100,000 toward a special fundraising challenge, with others anteing up an additional $135,000 to cover the costs of the exhibit. (Among other notable individual donors were museum namesake Jack S. Blanton Sr., Blanton's son Jack S. Blanton Jr., major Austin arts supporters Sarah and Ernest Butler, former UT System regent Bernard Rapoport and former UT president Larry Faulkner.)

Thankfully not a sprawling blockbuster, "Turner to Monet" brings a boutique view of an important American collection.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Turner to Monet: Masterpieces from the Walters Art Museum'

When:10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 2 (third Thursday of the month until 9 p.m)

Where:Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue.

Cost:$5-$9 (Free on Thursdays)

Information:471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org

'Pictures in Sound'

What: UT Butler School of Music presents scenes from Gaetano Donizetti's melodramatic 19th-century opera, 'The Elixir of Love.'

When:3 p.m. Sunday, October 10

Cost:Free with museum admission