Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Ponds

James Gardner

James Gardner Art, Exhibitions

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2013 |

Fig. 3. Lake George Autumn by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), 1922. Oil on canvas, 15 by 27 inches. © 2013 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Museums are a fairly recent development in human history, dating back scarcely more than two hundred years. But the founding of such institutions has accelerated so much in the past few decades that everything in the world- or so one might think-seems destined to end up in a museum. To be displayed in a museum is to be can­onized: it is to have one’s existence validated and ex­alted. And so it is that, in addition to the Louvres and Prados of the world, we now have the Hash, Mari­huana and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam and the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in La Crosse.

But few museums are as subtly eccentric as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM), founded in 2006 on the banks of the Mississippi, in the town of Winona (pop. 27,592). The only fine arts museum within a hundred miles in any direction, MMAM houses the collection of Robert “Bob” Kierlin and Mary Burrichter, husband and wife. Each of the nearly one thousand works is in some sense an aquatic scene. If these collectors had done nothing more than buy paintings of ships, that might have seemed a little unusual, but it would not be especially eccentric. What is eccentric, however, is that Burrichter and Kierlin (who founded Fastenal, a Winona-based firm that makes fastenings and related hardware for industrial use) have combed through Europe and the United States for art that fulfills only two criteria-that it be of the highest quality and that it depict water somewhere in it, even if only tangentially. All of the works would be welcome additions to any art museum in the world.

Though the Burrichter/Kierlin Collection reaches back, as one might have expected, to seventeenth-century Holland, with a seascape by Simon Jacobsz de Vlieger (Fig. 13), it consists mostly of the work of American and European artists of the last two hundred years. It is especially rich in works of the Hudson River school and of the French impressionists, although it also includes paintings by Pablo Picasso, Andrew Wyeth, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The representation of water in painting comes, if one will pardon the pun, in waves. The origins of art, especially of the two-dimensional kind that Burrichter and Kierlin collect, seem to have con­sisted in the repudiation of water. Whether through the fortuities of what survives or through some more deliberate intent, the earliest art we know of, the art of the caves, was created far inland, perhaps even before Homo sapiens had learned the arts of navigation and dared to venture upon the seas.

Fig. 10. Banks of the Seine at Bougival or Quay Sganzin by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), 1904. Signed “deVlaminck” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 28 by 36 inches. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

When we enter the light of history, however, water abounds in two-di­mensional art. This too is understand­able, given the Mediterranean orientation of art from around 1500 bc to around ad 500. The art­ists of Egypt frequently depicted the Nile, with its ibises and hippos and bulrushes, while Cretan painters showed an equally vivid interest in the life of the Aegean, a focus that continued in mainland Greece and throughout the Roman Empire down to the end of antiquity.

But with the emergence of the Middle Ages, the magnetic poles of art reversed themselves once again, as humanity-at least in the West-turned away from the sea and back to the hinterland. Other than the occasional depictions of Jonah and the whale and Saint Peter, the fisherman, or some rendering of a baptism, water was banished from visual art until the beginning of modern times. The various typologies of medieval Christian art had little occasion for landscapes in general, and so, little occasion for seascapes either.

That focus began to shift only in the Renaissance. What can fairly lay claim to being the first modern landscape painting of any kind, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by the great Swabian artist Kon­rad Witz (1444, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Ge­neva), is also the first seascape: a stunningly real­istic depiction of Lake Geneva reconceived as the Sea of Galilee. And yet, notwithstanding a few Venetian exceptions in the next century, Witz’s masterpiece was both the first and the last impor­tant seascape before the emergence of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. That is the point at which the genre begins in earnest and also the point at which MMAM picks up the tale.

As is evident in the earliest painting at MMAM, the seascape by Simon Jacobsz de Vlieger, water is perhaps the most challenging element to depict in two dimensions. Whereas land is at once static and richly varied, the essence of the sea is its ceaseless movement, as well as the fact that it is fundamentally of a piece. The artist, then, must exert all his skill to invest his subject with variety and interest. Vlieger achieves these goals by setting a three-masted galleon in the middle ground on the left, a scattering of smaller craft in the background on the right, and a rowboat, enveloped in shadow, in the central foreground. All of that, however, is merely incidental to his real ambition, to depict the roiling green waters that shimmer in the irregular sunlight, as well as the glorious cloud-cathedrals that expand across the sky.

This painting-or at least the Dutch genre to which it belongs-is essential to the evolution of most of the works in MMAM’s collection. Seascapes, like landscapes, emerged as discreet genres during the baroque period. Although actually invented in Italy, landscapes and seascapes were first embraced in Holland, perhaps the greatest seaborne empire of the age. In the centuries that followed, seascapes would figure prominently in the art of Italy, France, England, and the United States, but they would take their cue from that Dutch precedent.

Fig. 4. A View of Boston by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), 1837-1839. Oil on canvas, 34 by 37 ⅛ inches.

This is especially true of the Hudson River school painters who frequently appear at MMAM. The art usually included under that heading actually consists of two rather different strains: the earlier, associated with Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand, and the later, represented by such artists as Sanford Robinson Gifford and John Frederick Kensett, all of whom are notably represented in the collection. Cole and Durand still see the world through the spectacles of the Old Masters, spe­cifically painters like Vlieger and Claude Lorrain. In Cole’s A View of Boston (Fig. 4) and in Durand’s Landscape (Fig. 5) the last, lingering filaments of a Virgilian golden age seem to play about the edges of these classically balanced works. In both paintings, significantly, the water seems almost incidental, a bluish blur in the middle distance: but that is enough for Burrichter and Kierlin to include them at MMAM. For the so-called lumi­nist painters, Kensett and Gifford, however, work­ing during and after the Civil War, such mytho­logical halations are no longer possible. They have been replaced by the realism of John Ruskin in Gifford’s The Beach at Cohasset and Kensett’s At Newport (Figs. 6, 7). But even here, reality is hardly unfiltered.The pantheism of Baron Alexan­der von Humboldt infuses each white-capped wave and each scarred and furrowed cliff, as purest sunlight pours down upon scenes in which human­ity is, at most, an afterthought.

Fig. 6. The Beach at Cohasset by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), 1864. Signed and dated “SRGifford Cohasset Mass Sept. 14th 1864” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 9 ½ by 19 ¼ inches.

Very different are the European artists in the collec­tion. To see the works by J.M.W. Turner and the im­pressionists is to be reminded of Emile Zola’s definition of art as “un coin de la creation vu a travers un tempera­ment” (a corner of creation viewed through a specific temperament). That personal element, almost entirely absent from American art before the end of the nineteenth century, is manifest in Turner’s great Heidelberg with a Rainbow: the city on the River Neckar, with its bridges and spires, becomes in Turner’s hands a kind of medieval fairyland, a radiant vision in which humanity and nature exist in a state of perfect equilibrium (Fig. 8).

But Turner is making things up: he feels that it is his painterly prerogative to alter reality, as it presents itself to his eyes, according to the loftier dictates of his imagination and aesthetic sense. In Claude Monet’s Near Fécamp (Fig. 12) and Paul Signac’s Les Andelys, Lucas Island (Fig. 1), reality is never to be tampered with, even as it is infused with a mood as fluid as the waters it depicts. And so the cliffs and the sea that dominate Monet’s overcast canvas suggest an almost drugged torpor, while Signac’s scene of a medieval town, mirrored in the waters of the middle ground, carries intimations of deep hap­piness, as the sunlight sparkles on the waves.

Fig. 9. Seated Man (Homme assis) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), 1933. Signed and dated “Cannes 22 juil­letXXXIII/Picasso” at upper right. Watercolor and Chi­nese ink on paper, 16 by 20 inches. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In some of the paintings at MMAM, the viewer is almost challenged to find the watery element that was a precondition for their acquisition. The only intimation of liquidity in Paul Gauguin’s Still Life with Onions (cover) is a very solid earthenware jug that may or may not contain a fluid. In Mary Cassatt’s Fran­çoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading (c. 1909), the eye tra­verses the surface several times before noting the open window at the top, through which a sliver of water appears. But given the general excellence and variety of the works on view, none of that matters. Burrichter and Kierlin have chosen-arbitrarily, it might seem-a thematic premise to which they have stuck with fas­tidious punctilio, and the result is a world-class collection.

Charting New Waters: Redefining Marine Painting, Masterworks from the Burrichter/Kierlin Collection, edited by Annette Blaugrund and containing essays by Blaugrund, Stephen Brown, John Driscoll, Barbara Dayer Gallati, Joseph D. Ketner II, Elizabeth M. Kornhauser, Leo G. Mazow, Barbara Novak, Allen Staley, and Sally Webster, has recently been published by the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

Marine, Hudson River School, Impressionist and Modern Art •Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona • to December 2015 • mmam.org