William Merritt Chase

Dutch Utopia tour at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Today's visit to the Telfair Museum's exhibition, Dutch Utopia: American Artists in Holland, 1880-1914, was a fascinating delight for a huge group of art lovers from Savannah and beyond. Curator Holly McCullough led everyone through the genesis, choices, history and social background of an exhibition she had worked on for long years.

Holland became a magnet for many American artists, men and women, who chose to work, sometimes in colonies, in many small towns throughout the country. They created paintings that reflected Holland's silvery light, seascapes and dunes. Other work depicted Dutch society, selectively and with an emphasis on older, traditional mores. People were portrayed as sober, hardworking, church-going, mostly garbed in costumes that were chosen more for their pictorial value than any accuracy of local costume. Gari Melchers, one of the main artists represented in the exhibition, with dramatic paintings large and small, had close ties to the Telfair as he was Fine Arts Advisor to the Museum early in the 20th century. His choice of art to be acquired, during his tenure at the Museum, led to holdings of these American artists working in Holland, such as Walter MacEwen and George Hitchcock. Other artists represented in the exhibition range from Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and John Singer Sargent to women like Elizabeth Nourse and Anna Stanley. They all spent time in one or more of the small towns and villages favoured by the artists for their timeless beauties.

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

The 17th century influences show in much of the art, from Franz Hals to Rembrandt or Vermeer, and the silvery light is a hallmark of many of the paintings. I delighted in some of the depictures of the leaded glass windows, always with spindly pot plants reaching for the light but managing to add touches of background colour to interior scenes. Other aspects of the paintings dwell on the essence of Holland - windmills, tulips, orderly streets and fishing boat scenes. It was thus not surprising that a number of these paintings had been in European public and private collections from the time they were produced, although many others had been purchased by the new collecting public in this country. The Telfair had assembled this show from public and private collections and many had not been exhibited in public for long years.

If you miss this exhibition in Savannah, you can catch it at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and finally at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Thanks to Holly McCullough and her team, this exhibition is an unusual, fascinating and often very lovely exhibition well worth visiting.

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.