Poplars and a Portrait in West Palm Beach

A pair of nineteenth-century masterpieces visits the Norton Museum.

A recent trip to south Florida occasioned what has become a routine sojourn for me, a stopover at the Norton Museum of Art. Often as not there’s something of interest, and this season the Norton has loaned out a couple of works from its collection, and received two paintings in return. My desire to see the canvases, a van Gogh from the Cleveland Museum of Art, and a Degas from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, raised several questions: Why the fascination with nineteenth-century art, especially Impressionism? And what, if anything, is the connective tissue between two such distinctive and disparate personalities?

The Poplars at Saint-Rémy
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), The Poplars at Saint-Rémy, 1889. Oil on fabric, 24¼ x 17 15/16 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art; Bequest of Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., 1958.32

At the Norton, van Gogh’s The Poplars at Saint-Rémy is overwhelmed twice, first by its ornate antique frame, then by its installation on the third floor. Softly lit, it inhabits its own grey-painted gallery, a pearl in an oversized jewel box. It doesn’t help that the landscape’s colors are relatively sedate for a late van Gogh, relying on white to suggest terrain bleached by sunlight. The central two poplars are enclosed within a diamond-shaped design circumscribed by skyline above and crossing diagonals of rock-strewn land below. It is an inherently unstable composition, harmonized by color, the blue sky repeated in ground plane shadows and the blanched earth tones picked up in clouds. There is perhaps no way to write about van Gogh’s brushwork, idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable, without resorting to banalities; suffice to say that his sense of urgency demanded an entirely novel handling of paint. The Poplars at Saint-Rémy was made in a single session, a feat of compressed intensity.

Sharing a gallery with two other works by the artist, Degas’s Portrait of Mlle. Hortense Valpinçon resides more comfortably in its ground floor setting. The story of its production is no less remarkable than that of the van Gogh; leaving Paris during the barricades of 1871, Degas arrived at the Valpinçon country home without a canvas, and apprehended some mattress ticking upon which to paint his friend’s nine-year-old daughter. She leans into a sideboard and surveys us with unusual self-possession for one so young, holding in her right hand what has been variously described as a slice of fruit or a coin. Wearing a pinafore, a swath of broad-brushed white fabric that reappears under different guises in many early Degas portraits, Hortense is surrounded by a jumble of fabric patterns. Degas was at once enumerating the complex materials of a modern environment—clothing, hat, wallpaper, glimpses of skin—and challenging his facility for description. As ever, his draftsmanship is breathtaking, and as if to emphasize its primacy, Degas left a series of superfluous linear notes along the edge of the child’s back, a skittering calligraphy which may or may not have been left as a corrective reminder. At the last moment, the carefully contrived atmospheric spell has been broken.

The Poplars at Saint-Rémy
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mlle. Hortense Valpinçon, c. 1871. Oil on mattress ticking, 29¾ x 44¾ in. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The two artist’s backgrounds could hardly have been more different. Degas, the son of a banker, was thoroughly schooled in academic art, steeped in the work of the old masters. His bon mots carry an odor of aristocratic snobbery. Van Gogh wanted to save people, tried to be a rural preacher, and found his calling as a rough-hewn painter. Hortense Valpinçon is restrained, factual and witty; Poplars is emotional, visionary.

The painters shared common ground in their disdain for convention, or more to the point, a willingness to circumvent conventional means when necessary, which is to say frequently. For van Gogh, this meant forming a personal mode of expression which could transmit an immediate, passionate observation. For Degas, an obsessive faculty for experimentation made possible the use of domestic linens when no artist’s canvas was available.

Both artists enjoyed the tactile qualities of paint. Again, with van Gogh this is more obvious, since his painting is less concerned with a traditional attempt to mimic the surface of substances than an expression of felt “essences.” The resulting waves of thick, juicy pigment announce the prominence given to the substance of paint itself. Degas, especially in his youth, was a more subtle iconoclast. His affection for a variety of textures is evident in the Valpinçon portrait, but his purposes are not purely mimetic, and he, too, forgoes a traditional attempt to duplicate material in favor of pattern. It’s a short leap from here to Vuillard, an evolution that Degas would largely experience himself in later works.

The ascendancy of pattern at the expense of three-dimensional effect—or at least the tension between the two modes—was a hallmark of Impressionist painting, and a shared characteristic of Degas and van Gogh. So was the attempt to suggest transient effects through paint application, in Degas’s painting via unfinished passages and “stray” lines, and in van Gogh’s work the furious wet-in-wet hatching of pigment. These ideas suggested new responses to modern life, and account for the energized surfaces of later nineteenth-century painting. Removed from the atelier, painting was revitalized in the drawing room and the open air.

In Impressionism, negative space, deep space, took on tangible attributes. The general banishing of brown and black from the palette indicated not only a preference for sunlight, but abandonment of the idea that dark pockets of space within a painting were dead sections. The pulsing sky of The Poplars and the blurred floral wallpaper behind Mlle. Valpinçon serve as more than mere backdrops or rest areas to their subjects. In each canvas there exists a tense equipoise between the subject and subsidiary elements. Soon enough, such tensions became irrelevant; flatness and movement were qualities formalized by Cubism and Futurism.

That’s not to say one wishes to return to another era, nor is there an intent to romanticize a bygone culture. But there is something in the art of that time and place, aside from the commercial popularity a once radical movement now enjoys, that continues to resonate. For some few years painters found a fraught balance not only between form and flatness, but between the museum and the café, between past and present.

Degas meant a lot to me when I was younger; if our laws were more stringent about such things, I could nearly have been cited for visual copyright violations in several paintings. I left the Norton no longer wishing to emulate him, but with a confirmed appreciation for his drawing, design, and above all, his fascination with subtleties of personality in the individuals he portrayed. Van Gogh has staked the strongest claim to our romantic imagination, but Degas, the master of the drawing room, was arguably the preeminent figurative artist of his era. If you’re in West Palm Beach this winter, come for the van Gogh, but stay for the Degas.

The Poplars at Saint-Rémy is on view at the Norton Museum of Art until April 17, 2016. Portrait of Mlle. Hortense Valpinçon is on view until May 15, 2016.

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