Sunday, October 19, 2003
Oklahoma City, Okla. Sunlight reflects in the folds of a billowing skirt and off the hand of a peasant girl, who stands in a dull field holding a pitchfork.
The spray of light -- a technique to show distance and depth -- links the oil painting's American artist, Winslow Homer, to his French muse, Jean-Francois Millet.
Works by both artists, as well as dozens more by American painters who studied in Paris, are part of an exhibit created by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. "Americans in Paris" is on display until Nov. 30 and will not travel to any other museum or gallery.
The exhibit focuses on Americans who studied at the government-owned Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the rural French art colonies and even Claude Monet's Giverny from 1850 to 1910.
As America turned its attention to becoming an industrial power after the Civil War, Paris was the cultural center of the world. American art schools could not compete with what Paris had to offer.
"This show is an explanation for the beginning of American art," said Carolyn Hill, the museum's executive director.
Museum staff worked for three years to borrow more than 140 pieces for the show, a concept Hill imagined as she prepared to move the museum from its dingy home at the fairgrounds to a shiny new downtown building.
"Our frustration was that we're going to be ready, but there's nothing available," Hill said. "We were going to be really hungry for bona fide, beautiful, academic painting."
They found plenty of it -- by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler and others -- from 45 lenders across the country. Scenes scattered through the gallery include Paris apartments and cafes, passers-by strolling along the Seine and many a view of Notre Dame.
Among the pieces are pencil sketches of nude models by Kenyon Cox, an American who studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts. One is of Mona Lisa, sketched as Cox sat in the Louvre.
Another highlight is the work Daniel Ridgway Knight, whose two paintings of peasant girls standing in lush gardens with vibrant flowers light up the gallery. In one, two girls share a secret on the rural edge of a river bend.
Knight, who was from Philadelphia, studied in Paris, then returned home to enlist in the Army in 1863. He eventually saved enough money to return to France for good.
The exhibit has two sections on impressionism, including "In the Luxembourg Gardens," by Sargent. A man with a cigarette in his mouth strolls with a woman in a pink-ruffled gown along the park plaza. Behind them, people mingle in muted colors and a man reads a newspaper.
In Cassatt's "Maternal Caress," a child cups her mother's cheek in her hand. Cassatt, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker, studied with Jean-Leon Gerome and Charles Chaplin in France.