When I went to New York last December, I rushed to the Metropolitan Museum to see the exquisite small exhibition of 18th century French painter Antoine Watteau. It was the closing day of the show, and I expected it to be packed, but luckily for me, that was not the case. There was another show at the Met that Sunday that drew a big crowd: a sprawling display of American paintings telling stories of everyday life here, in this country of ours, from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. The exhibition was huge, with close to 200 paintings occupying about a dozen galleries, and mixing works by lesser-known painters with masterpieces by such big-name artists as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and John Singleton Copley, with his iconic portrait of Paul Revere.
To be completely honest, seeing this exhibition was not at the top of my list, but I felt I should see it, and, to my surprise, fell quickly under its spell. Most of the paintings in the show deal with quaint aspects of everyday life, and with minor artists tackling the subject, the results are often rather banal, but on a few occasions, thanks to the sheer talent of the artists and exuberance of brushwork, I got a joyful jolt of energy that stayed with me long after leaving the museum.
Luckily for us, this exhibition, appropriately titled "American Stories," just crossed the country and opened over the weekend here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With some of the masterpieces unfortunately not making it to LA, this is a smaller version of the Met's show, but the resulting exhibition, with fewer minor works, is decidedly better-edited than the original New York show. Here in LA, the exhibition is better designed, with a less crowded display of art and with each room painted in a different strong color complementing the paintings.
The first gallery smartly mixes some of the best and most interesting paintings from different periods, including the monumental canvas by John Singleton Copley, with its heroic, over-the-top scene of a shark attacking a drowning boy. But my favorite is the small 1909 canvas by John Sloan depicting a scene in a Chinese restaurant, with a man audibly slurping noodles while his lady, in a gigantic hat crowned with a red feather, offers a treat to a patiently waiting cat. The brushstrokes are quick and sparse, and the moment is captured with unrivaled precision, perfection and a wonderful sense of humor.
Toward the middle of the exhibition, the show loses a bit of steam, but the last two rooms once again regain momentum. The seductive Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt, with its symphony of blue tones, rivals the best Impressionist paintings of her French contemporaries. And the richly detailed painting by William Merritt Chase, depicting him in his elegant, well-appointed studio, is a perfect embodiment of the world immortalized in Henry James and Edith Wharton novels. The exhibition literally ends with a punch delivered by George Bellows, whose boxers pummel each other mercilessly, viciously fighting to the death in his superb Club Night painting from 1907.
When I saw the show last night, I encountered very few visitors, while in New York, the exhibition was jam-packed. This disparity could be partially explained by the fact that admission to the Met is free, while LACMA charges a separate fee of $20 to see this exhibition. On my recent trip to Madrid, I was delighted to see Sunday crowds roaming the galleries of the Prado and Reina Sofia, with free admission on weekends. There is definitely something out of whack here at LACMA, our public museum, when its two potential blockbuster exhibitions - one of American stories and another of late Renoir paintings - cannot find an audience.
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915
On view at LACMA through May 23
Banner image: John Sloan (1871–1951), The Picnic Grounds (detail), 1906–1907, oil on canvas; 24" x 36"; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase. Photograph: Sheldan C. Collins. © 2009 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York