Perhaps Kennedy describes A Magnificent Age as a fun summer show because putting it together was a breeze. Except for a few pieces owned by the Nelson, the entirety of A Magnificent Age was shipped to Kansas City from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which deinstalled its nineteenth-century art galleries to make room for the Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum traveling show (the same one that made a stop at the Nelson in spring 2002). William Walters, a railroad and liquor tycoon, collected art in the mid-to-late 1800s; after his death, Walters' son Henry took over with the aim of assembling a body of art for a public museum. So the Walters collection reflects the popular tastes of the mid-to-late nineteenth century -- and how can something really feel "summery" if it comes from a time when bathing suits stretched down to the ankles?
Nonetheless, Kansas Citians have a chance to see something unusual. "A lot of these sort of pictures we don't have at the Nelson," Kennedy says. "It gives the public something different to look at."
The show consists mainly of nineteenth-century French paintings and sculptures, along with some jewelry, ceramics and book art. It's installed in four of the Nelson's galleries; Kennedy dedicated each gallery to one or two styles or themes -- Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Orientalism, Realism and Impressionism.
You don't need an art history degree to notice the difference between the Neoclassical and Romantic paintings opening the exhibition. (A semester or two of French would help with pronunciation of the artists' names, though.) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' "Oedipus and the Sphinx," from 1864, and Jean-Léon Gérôme's "The Death of Caesar," from 1859, depict classic mythical or historic narratives in the polished, well-controlled manner characteristic of Neoclassicism. Leading Romantic Eugène Delacroix, on the other hand, paints 1846's "Christ on the Cross" with such a fervor of brush strokes that it's surprising to learn he wasn't a practicing Christian. It's the emotional intensity of the crucifixion that fascinates him, and Delacroix maximizes its drama, thrusting Jesus' dying body into the center of the composition and covering it in a delicate, bright light that contrasts the graying, stormy background.
Gérôme's "The Duel after the Masquerade," from 1857-59, incorporates the same amount of drama but more literally -- the artist sets his scene like a stage, skillfully presenting the aftermath of an early-morning duel. (Duels often took place in the morning to escape detection from authorities and to give the winner a full day to leave the country if the fight resulted in a fatality.) Still in costume from the previous evening's frivolities, the figures stand in front of a thinly painted background reminiscent of a theater backdrop. The slain man slumps backward into the supporting grasp of his companions; sword in hand, his arm falls limply to his side. His wound soaks through his white garment and leaves a bloody trail on the white snow beneath his feet while the victor and his cohort make off into the distance.
In the next room, the focus turns to Orientalism, a style that derives its name from orientalisme, the French word for the study of non-European cultures. Delacroix based "Collision of Moorish Horsemen" (1843-44) on a military exercise he witnessed while traveling in Morocco. Two horses -- one white and one black -- plow into each other as their riders tightly grip the reins. Delacroix paints the scene in Romantic style characteristic of the Orientalist movement, making a whirlwind out of the soldiers' clothing and the horses' tails and manes. Dusty smoke billows from other practice skirmishes in the background. Georges Clairin depicts a typical Orientalist subject in "Entering the Harem," from the 1870s. A haughty-looking sheik ascends the steps of his palace as a slave draws back the curtain, allowing the viewer a glimpse of the golden, bejeweled interior and the lavishly dressed women waiting inside. Clairin borrowed the architecture in this work from the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
A Magnificent Age steers back toward France in the next gallery with examples of Realism, portraying then-contemporary subject matter that had previously been considered unworthy of artistic attention. Jean-François Millet's "The Potato Harvest," from 1855, glorifies the simple life of the peasant. In Millet's drab-colored, roughly textured painting, country folk are digging and loading pomme de terres into burlap sacks. "It didn't appeal to people who lived in the country," Kennedy says of such art. "It appealed to people who lived in towns. They could look at pictures like that and think, God, I'm glad I'm not harvesting potatoes. I'm sitting eating them in front of a warm fire." American collectors, in particular, loved Millet's moral undertones, because he paid homage to the Puritan virtue of hard work.
Along with the Realist figurative works are several landscapes. Most noteworthy aesthetically and from an art-history standpoint is Pierre-Étienne-Théodore Rousseau's 1845 "Hoarfrost." To capture the luminous orange-and-red sunset over a rocky, frost-spotted field, Rousseau worked outside in the cold for a week at dusk. "This is really one of the first instances where a preparatory sketch was presented as a finished painting," Kennedy explains. "That's why it's important for Impressionism. The Impressionists' pictures were very sketchy, but they were presented as finished paintings."
Although Henry Walters did not personally like Impressionist painting, he had the foresight to add such work to his collection. On display in the final gallery are samples such as 1882's "Before the Race," in which Edgar Degas exemplifies the unfinished feeling of Impressionist work. Depicting a line of jockeys and horses preparing for a race, Degas uses dark, sketchy outlines and color washes so thin that the panel shows through. The most famous Impressionist work in the Walters collection, Manet's "The Café-Concert," from 1879, shows a Parisian gentleman in a top hat seated next to a young woman in a brown dress in a crowded cabaret. Manet's tight cropping cuts off the right side of the woman's body. "This is a lady of easy virtue. She's not respectable, because she's smoking in public and you're not supposed to do that. She's looking a bit sad because he's ignoring her," Kennedy says. The man's gaze rests on the cabaret singer reflected in a mirror in the background. Although Manet's painting is full of people, none of them interact with one another, conveying the isolation of city life in the late 1800s.
But to experience any sort of summery sensation, viewers will have to spend some time in front of a single painting, one by the quintessential Impressionist Monet. For "Springtime," an 1872 portrait of his wife, Camille, reading in the shade of a lilac shrub, Monet dabs light-colored paint across his wife's pink, muslin dress and the olive-green grass, mimicking the play of sunlight through the branches. Unlike the other pieces in the show, this one captures the atmosphere of a warm, tranquil afternoon.