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Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
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A wealth of absorbing art exhibits in Washington

MuseumsMetropolitan Museum of ArtBaltimore Museum of Art

Artistic attractions well worth wending your way to Washington for include two winning exhibits devoted to Whistler and Wyeth, as well as a fascinating show pairing Degas with Cassatt. There's a towering, even titillating, Titian, too.

Conveniently, they're all located along the National Mall. Three of them — "Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In," "Degas/Cassatt" and Titian's "Danae" — are at the National Gallery of Art. "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames" is at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Wyeth's windows

Starting with the most recent work on display, the Wyeth exhibit of 60 tempera paintings, watercolors and drawings, many of them never seen before by the public, is thoroughly absorbing. The works share a theme that has interested artists for centuries: windows. Wyeth's approach to that subject is as distinctive as it is haunting.

This marks the first time an exhibit has been devoted to his window fascination, which resulted in more than 300 works over the course of six decades. The idea for the project was triggered by a gift to the National Gallery in 2009 of "Wind from the Sea," a 1947 painting of lacy curtains caught by a breeze through an open window.

"I started to ask a number of questions about that painting," says curator Nancy Anderson, head of the National Gallery's Department of American and British Paintings. "And that led down a path. I discovered that quite a few of the window paintings had no human beings in them. This was a different aspect of the artist I wasn't familiar with."

The exhibit begins with "Wind from the Sea," painted from an abandoned upstairs room at the home of Wyeth's friend Christina Olson, who would become the subject of his most famous work, "Christina's World."

As the artist looked out the window, a gust of air suddenly stirred the curtains, making it seem as if the birds crocheted in the fading lace had begun to fly. The image made his "hair stand on end," Wyeth said. He set about capturing that scene and created something magical and mesmerizing. It expresses, as the artist said, "a great deal without too much in it."

Giving this masterwork added power is the exhibit's inclusion of studies Wyeth made before he created "Wind from the Sea." A couple of them are nearly as powerful, in their own way, as the finished product.

The Olson home figures in several other pieces in the show, to particularly striking effect in "Weatherside," a painting of the outside of the structure. Wyeth saw "eyes or pieces of the soul almost" in each window, reflecting "a different part of Christina's life."

Throughout the exhibit, it is possible to feel this extra significance windows had for the artist. In "Snowed In" (1980), for example, a watercolor on paper depicting Karl Kuerner's farm near Wyeth's home in Chadds Ford, Pa., only one small, upstairs window is in the scene, its curtains half-parted. It suggests a single, wary eye keeping watch.

Another wintry view, "Evening at Kuerners" (1970), has a chill you can almost feel, relieved by the soft light from a window of the house. A more impressionistic variation on the illuminated window theme is found in a dark watercolor called "Night Light at Kuerners" (1960), which gains extra power from bits of actual grass and mud Wyeth left on the paper.

The feeling of loneliness in "Cold Spell" (1965), with icicles dangling outside the window of a room with stained walls, is striking not just for the poetic image, but also the sheer beauty of the angular composition and the subtlety of the muted colors.

It's the same with "Off at Sea" (1972), a moody piece that can be viewed abstractly as a study in line, shade and shadow, but also as a psychological portrait of worry and possible loss. The latter is suggested by the single wire hanger on the wall. It is hard to stop looking at that stark object, which seems to have such a story to tell.

It was fashionable for a while to devalue or even dismiss Wyeth. Such views would be hard to hold on to in the face of the sensitivity, imagination and expressive depth on view here.

"Wyeth's reputation is at a real transition moment," Anderson says. "People are paying less attention to those who attacked him because he was popular or because his works sold well — all that stuff that's not about the art. I think this exhibit can enable people to think about Wyeth differently."

And keep thinking about his work long after leaving the gallery.

Degas/Cassatt

A short walk from the Wyeth show is a celebration of two great impressionists who were friends and collectors of each other's work — the Frenchman Edgar Degas and an American in Paris, Mary Cassatt.

The show offers about 70 paintings, pastels and works on paper from the 1870s and 1880s gathered from the National Gallery's extensive holdings and those in some other venues, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum.

The collection deftly traces the multiple ways Degas influenced Cassatt and, as evidenced by one of the exhibit's big pieces, "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair," even had a hand in her work. Degas painted parts of it and advised Cassatt on making certain changes in the placement of objects in the scene.

It is also fascinating to see both artists dealing with similar subjects, including fans and theater scenes. The juxtaposition of Degas' dynamic etchings of performers on- or backstage with Cassatt's languid etchings of ladies sitting in the theater creates a beguiling energy.

And, for the first time, it is possible to see Cassatt's "Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J)," on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, alongside Degas' "Fan Mount: Ballet Girls," which Cassatt depicted in the background of her painting.

Other highlights include Degas' portrait of Cassatt, with its wild, abstract splash of color behind her head, and views he captured of his friend visiting the Louvre.

Titian's 'Danae'

Also of note in the National Gallery of Art is a rare Italian visitor, Titian's famed "Danae," on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. The painting hasn't been seen here since 1990. Cleaning and restoration have been made since then.

The background of this highly sensual depiction of the mythical maiden Danae awaiting ravishment by head god Jupiter — he arrives disguised as a shower of golden coins — is doubly fascinating.

The piece, completed in 1545, was commissioned by a lusty cardinal known for his womanizing, looted by German soldiers during World War II, and recovered by the celebrated Monuments Men in 1945.

Today, Titian's handiwork is easy to appreciate, as much in the sculptural curves of the evidently very willing Danae as in the unsure look on the face of a startled, fleeing Cupid.

Whistler and the Thames

James Whistler has long had a place of honor at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, which houses the world's largest collection of the American artist's work. About 50 items from that collection are now in the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, where they can be seen alongside Whistler's work from other museums.

The result, "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames," is billed as the first major show of works from 1859 into the 1870s — the artist's early period in London, where he would spend the bulk of his life. (Whistler's last U.S. address before emigrating was in Baltimore.)

"The show has two intertwined narratives," says Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer/Sackler Galleries. "One is the narrative of London itself, which was transforming into a modern commercial center. The second is Whistler's own artistic transformation, from [Gustave] Courbet-inflected realism to the more evocative, atmospheric approach of his 'Nocturnes.'"

Several of those paintings Whistler dubbed "Nocturnes" are prominent features of this exhibit, revealing the artist's uncanny sense of light. "Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge," with its exquisite, shadowy atmosphere, is a prime example.

In such vibrant pieces as "Battersea Reach" or the subtle "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green — The Balcony," Whistler's fascination with Japanese prints emerges tellingly. (A beautifully organized companion exhibit at the gallery devoted to a Japanese artist contemporary with Whistler, Kobiyashi Kiyochika, helps make the connection even clearer.)

Whether in etchings that have a certain Rembrandt-like resonance or paintings that range from straightforward to richly impressionistic, Whistler "bore witness to London's transition," Glazer says. "He walked along the Thames and absorbed all its energy, eventually transforming modern London into an object of poetic beauty."

That beauty comes through spewing factory smokestacks or scenes of commerce and construction, and it's also in the human figures who appear in some of the works. Whistler's mastery and imagination, his distinctive eye for color and form, reward the eye at every turn.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, through Aug. 17: "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames." Free admission. 202-633-4880, asia.si.edu.

At the National Gallery of Art, 6th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, through Oct 5: "Degas/Cassatt"; Titian's "Danae" through Nov. 2; "Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In" through Nov. 30. Free admission. 202-737-4215, nga.gov.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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