"Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal," 1785, by Gerard Van Spaendonck

“Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal,” 1785, by Gerard Van Spaendonck

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s exclusive East coast showing of Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: the Art of the Flower is touted as the first major American exhibition to examine 19th century French floral still life painting and its development into a modern, 20th century form. It’s an expansive, but not overwhelming show, featuring some 30 artists, including Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Henri Fantin-Latour, in addition to the stars given top billing.

"Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier," 1814, by Antoine Berjon

“Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier,” 1814, by Antoine Berjon

We drove to Richmond to see the show during Virginia Garden Week, and on Earth Day to boot, so we were primed to bliss out over tulip, peony, ranunculus, and lily. Beautifully mounted, each gallery of this dazzling show is painted a different color— lavender, spring green, heliotrope—giving the sense that the rooms themselves are blooming as you walk through them.

"African Woman with Peonies," 1870, by Frederic Bazille

“African Woman with Peonies,” 1870, by Frederic Bazille

The exhibit begins with the French masters whose technically brilliant work laid the foundation for the genre. Often these preeminent flower painters were originally Dutch or Belgian, trained in the highly realistic northern tradition of flower painting. Interestingly, their botanical illustrations also appeared in scientific journals of the day. Gerard van Spaendonck moved to Paris as a young man and rose to royal flower painter in the court of  Louis XVI.  In his “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal,” 1785, the work is so fine, it appears to be painted on porcelain. No brush strokes break the illusion that these flowers were moments before, plucked from some garden of perfection. In addition to admiring the flowers, we delighted in picking out ladybugs, butterflies, and other fauna, not to mention the occasional shimmering dewdrop.

"Asters in a Vase," 1875, by Henri Fantin-Latour

“Asters in a Vase,” 1875, by Henri Fantin-Latour

The next room, “Flower Painting in Lyon,” brings us Antoine Berjon and his stunning “Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier,” 1814. We learn that Berjon was a professor of flower painting at Lyon’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded by Napoleon to revive Lyon’s silk industry. Here, Berjon trained flower painters to supply images for the exacting process of silk printing. His mastery of both realism and a quirky sensibility are seen in this work, with the man-made objects and found natural objects included in the composition. It’s a tour de force of textural painting, no doubt intended to impress his patrons, but also to give the viewer a wider experience, moving away from more formal compositions in which the bouquet simply appears on a surface with no human intervention.

"Bouquet in a Loge," 1878-80, by Auguste Renoir

“Bouquet in a Loge,” 1878-80, by Auguste Renoir

In the room devoted to the romantic Delacroix and modern master Courbet, we were struck by the new looseness and freedom with which these artists approach their flowery subjects. A favorite in this group is “African Woman with Peonies,” 1870, by Frederic Bazille, a “friend and ally” of those who went on to form the Impressionist school. In this lovely painting, she who arranges the flowers is given a role of equal importance, if not greater, in the magnificence of the final arrangement.

"Lilacs in a Window," 1880-83, by Mary Cassatt

“Lilacs in a Window,” 1880-83, by Mary Cassatt

With Henri Fantin-Latour, we entered yet another realm—now the brush strokes are still looser and far less slick. We were transfixed by “Asters in a Vase,” 1875. The fresh, round flower faces are echoed in the shape of the vase, creating a circular, very pleasing composition. Emile Zola was similarly drawn in, saying in 1880, “The canvasses of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely…”

Moving into the realm of Degas and Renoir we passed through an ante-room where our fellow art lovers were invited to sit down and sketch a vase full of flowers. We were tempted, but time was short and Renoir pulled at us. In “Bouquet in a Loge,” 1878-80, Auguste Renoir takes his flowers out of the home and places them on a chair in a theater. Even though the chair is almost abstract, we sense that this is a public place. The roses, so dense and tightly-furled, have been discarded in a moment of enthusiasm with what’s happening on the stage, or a distraction from an admirer, or any number of other imagined scenes. The flowers are now part of a story and not merely displayed for their own sake.

"Daisies," 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh

“Daisies,” 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh

In a striking Mary Cassatt composition (hung in the room devoted to Manet and his influences), “Lilacs in a Window,” 1880-1883, the artist places the vase of lush flowers on a window sill, half in and half out of the house. The window, likely one in a greenhouse, serves to enclose the vase and creates a series of pleasing shapes within the off-kilter frame.

"Flowers in a Vase," 1905, by Olilon Redon

“Flowers in a Vase,” 1905, by Olilon Redon

Vincent Van Gogh’s appealing “Daisies, Arles,” 1888, is hung against a slate blue-green wall, its charm lying in the artless way these most prosaic of flowers are tossed into the basket. Soft brushstrokes show the basket has been left on the grass as the gatherer attends to some other task. In 1887, Van Gogh wrote his sister that he had banished the “gray harmonies” of his earlier work by painting “almost nothing by flowers.”

"Still Life with Pascal's Pensees," 1924, by Henri Matisse

“Still Life with Pascal’s Pensees,” 1924, by Henri Matisse

The poppy-red room, “Redon, Bonnard, Matisse,” was the final treat. Odile Redon’s mysterious and mystical flowers have long been a favorite. “Flowers in a Vase,” 1905, seem to merge with the shimmering background, unmoored, floating in space. Looking at this painting, it’s impossible to believe that the artist worked only in black and white until the turn of the 20th century.

“Still Life with Pascal’s Pensees,” was painted in 1924 when Henri Matisse was living in Nice, France. The homey composition harkens back to the invitation of the Berjon painting with the open drawer and glimpse of seashells. This humble image, with none of the slick virtuosity of the Berjon, sent me a similar message: the connection between human thought and nature. Matisse may be about to sit down with his coffee, the breeze from the beach barely lifting the curtain, with his lovely blue and white vase of anemones, arranged just so, to be carried away by Pascal’s thoughts on human existence. Or maybe he’s just made that coffee for us, and we’re invited to join with him in contemplation.

"Wildflowers, Queen Anne's Lace, and Poppies," 1912, by Pierre Bonnard

“Wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Poppies,” 1912, by Pierre Bonnard

Another favorite artist, Pierre Bonnard, painted early still lifes with floral motifs, and then, later in his career, came back to them and reveled in their delights. He made sketches in watercolor from life and returned to his studio to work in oil, thus abstracting complex details into an absorbing and brilliant composition. “Wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Poppies,” 1912, is an exuberant explosion of color and light, in which the flowers in their tall vase seem spontaneously gathered, hardly labored over in the studio. (Thanks to Deborah Boschert’s Journal, “Around and About in Dallas,” for this image.)

We came out of this show dazzled, itching to draw flowers, in much the same way that seeing dancers leap across the stage makes you want to do grand jetes up the aisle of the theater.

I’m thinking of going back and making that sketch…I have until June 21. Join me?


"Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife," 1926

“Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926

I’ve always thought Picasso was over-rated, but never believed anyone agreed with me. After seeing this stunning show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, I find that I’m not alone. Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection, felt that that Braque had advanced “the amazing innovations of Picasso.” Just so. In 1927 Phillips went on to say, “Braque is one of the few modernists who interests me and I must have a good example by him.” He paid $2,000 for “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926, the first Braque painting to be acquired by a U.S. museum.

Mariah Boone, the lead character in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, was heard to say, “Yes, a still life must be still, but it doesn’t have to be dead.” All throughout this show, I felt Mariah was looking over my shoulder enjoying the life pulsing from these works. Occasionally we high-fived each other when no one was looking.

"The Round Table," 1929

“The Round Table,” 1929

The show’s curator has assembled some 40 works from Braque’s “overlooked” mid-career and hung them in such a way that the viewer can see his evolution from the 1920s—“intimate and classical”—to the 1930s—“bold and ornamental—to the 1940s—“personal, daily life.” Many of these works are owned by the Phillips Collection and others have been drawn from varied institutions and private collections in the U.S and Europe.

“The Round Table,” 1929, is the first work in which Braque used sand, along with oil and charcoal, aiming for a tactile, layered effect. Among the many joys of this show are the profusion of quotes from Braque: “The guiding light of Cubism was the materialization of this new space which I could feel. So I began to paint mainly still lifes … another way of conveying the desire which I’ve always had to touch things.”

"Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet," 1927

“Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927

Purchased in 1929 as a mate to “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” “Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927, brings together, almost as a collage, the images that Braque continued to paint over and over for decades. In this way, the show reminded me of another superb one the Phillips mounted some years ago: Giorgio Morandi lovingly, meticulously, rendered the same objects in a seemingly infinite number of combinations, light, and perspectives.

"The Napkin Ring," 1929

“The Napkin Ring,” 1929

In the second room a table sitting among the paintings tells a fascinating story. “The Napkin Ring,” an inlaid marble floor panel, one of four, was based upon four paintings made in 1929 for the Paris apartment of Alexandre P. Rosenberg. When the Germans confiscated the building in 1940, it was converted into the “Institute for the study of Jewish Questions.” Somehow the floor panels survived. The Rosenberg family (the full story needs to be told) managed to retrieve them in 1949 and had them made into tables. Now, the original painted panels are at the Cleveland Museum of Art, gifts from the Rosenberg family. The craftsman who made the table received direction from Braque and managed to reproduce the floating knife, filmy table cloth, and vivid lemon in stone.

"Still Life on Red Table Cloth," 1934

“Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” 1934

In the next room are paintings from Braque’s major exhibitions in Europe and the U.S. Carl Einstein, a friend and critic said of the 1933 Kunsthalle show in Basel, Switzerland, “Braque tirelessly varies the same motif and . . . heightens it . . . slowly and patiently he raises his aims.” You can see this process at work in “Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” (1934) and “Still Life with Guitar,” (1937 – 38). “The viewer retraces the same path as the artist,” Braque said, “and as it is the path that counts more than the thing, one is more interested by the journey.”

"Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains)," 1937 - 38

“Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains),” 1937 – 38

At around this time he also said, “In painting, the contrast between textures plays as big a role as the contrast between colors,” and, “It is all the same to me whether a form represents different things to different people, or many things at the same time.” This statement seemed particularly apt in referring to  “Glass with Fruit Dish,” 1931. Very abstract, this painting was inspired by Greek vase paintings that Braque saw in the Louvre. In it he carved thin lines in the black paint. “Objects do not exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them … it is the in- between that is the real subject of my pictures,” Braque said. Indeed, you can dwell in the in-between for hours in this show.

"Still Life with Pink Fish," 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937, with its wonderful acid green, was shown in Braque’s first U.S. retrospective, along with “Le Gueridon,” 1935, a long panel featuring the same wild wallpaper as in “Pink Fish.” This striking motif appears again and again in subsequent paintings to marvelous effect.

"Vase, Palette, and Mandolin," 1936

“Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936

At around “Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936, Braque’s epigrams on his art became hard to fathom and quite a lively discussion sprang up between several museum-goers, me, and the young staffer whose job it was to stand around and make sure no one touched any of those seductive surfaces. Braque said, “…the object is a dead thing. It comes to life when it is activated.”  What did he mean by “activated”? Brought to life by the artist’s enlivening vision? Further on, he says, “A still life is no longer a still life when it is no longer within arm’s reach.” One woman exclaimed, “That makes no sense at all!” We grappled with its meaning but didn’t have much success. It was a little like a Bob Dylan lyric which you intuit to be true, even if you couldn’t possibly say why.

"Mandolin and Score (The Banjo)," 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo),” 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo), 1941, is a knockout with its graphic persimmon tablecloth and wildly undulating banjo strap. “Studio with Black Vase,” 1938, is familiar from visits to Washington’s Kreeger Museum. This is the first appearance of a skull in Braque’s work, but he doesn’t use the skull as a reminder of human mortality as others have done. For him, “A skull is a beautiful structure and it is used to waiting.” Perfect subject matter for a maker of still life.

"Wash Stand before the Window," 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942, frames the open sky in a way that was eerily familiar. What did it remind me of? Suddenly it came to me, and after soaking up as much of Braque as I could for one visit, I went downstairs to find Pierre Bonnard’s “The Open Window,” 1921, one of my favorite paintings. Could Braque have seen it? One can only speculate and feel fortunate to be able to see both of them in this jewel of a gallery.

"The Open Window," by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

“The Open Window,” by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

The show, which was organized with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, will be on view until September 1, 2013.