Wandering through the second floor of the British Art Center, through the maze of wall panels and gilt frames, it is impossible not to be riveted by the gentle, glistening tears of a cherub or the haunting eyes of a pair of wise siblings.
Such is the work that makes the exhibition “Great British Paintings from American Collections” so beautiful and touching. Benjamin West’s “Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Elizabeth and Thomas Linley” are only two of the vibrant, lively and tender paintings that make up this collection.
The program, subtitled “From Holbein to Hockney” to indicate its time span from modern to classical, is the most comprehensive exhibition of British masterpieces ever assembled in this country.
“Great British Paintings” is joined in the BAC this week by another exhibition, “Wilde Americk,” a gathering of early American maps, sketches and paintings made by explorers and pioneers. The second collection is designed to document the expanding awareness and understanding of the New World in the European mind. The two shows opened to the public yesterday, and will run until Dec. 30.
Both exhibits seem to overflow the walls and glass display cases of the museum with precision, knowledge, and energy. “Americk” even includes an interactive, educational computer program where visitors can learn about ancient perceptions of geography and mythology.
Maps from as early as 1489 adorn the walls, painted, drawn, and printed to depict both North and South America. Most striking of these is William Janszoon Blaeu’s 1608 map of the Americas that is filled in with the fantastical creatures which explorers once thought ruled the unexplored seas.
Other objects of interest include maps that lay out the boundaries between states and territories in the United States as perceived by surveyors of the area. A map of the planet by Johann Schoner in 1522 is even matched by his celestial globe in the middle of the room, laying out the location and importance of each of the constellations. Shoner’s terrestrial globe, also on display, is the third-oldest world sphere to survive and was modeled directly from the famous Martin Waldseemueller map of 1507 which was the first to bear the name “America” after Amerigo Vespucci. The globe at Yale has “America” written on the South American continent.
But perhaps most fascinating of the displays in this exhibit are the paintings and drawings of Native American life and people made by some of the original western explorers on the continent. John White’s 1585 drawing of towns and dwellings, and Sigismund Baestrum’s 1792 sketches of various indigenous peoples provide telling clues as to how the Europeans viewed the people with whom they shared land in those years.
Across the floor, the “British Paintings” exhibit goes a long way towards showing how those Europeans actually saw themselves, with gardens, cities, and families filling most of the artwork. The collection represents work collected from roughly 35 different American collections, 10 percent from the BAC and 10 percent from the Huntington Art Collections, a British art museum in San Marino, Calif. The Huntington is the other largest collection of British art in the United States, and serves as a West Coast complement to Yale’s museum.
Malcolm Warner, curator of the exhibit, said that one goal of the project was to try to maintain a high level of aesthetic achievement while still keeping an accurate historical chronology of British art.
“We avoided the temptation to indulge paintings that were ‘art historically’ important if they were not also great artistic masterpieces,” Warner said. “Our first objective was to give the most gorgeous account of British painting we could possibly muster.”
This decision certainly shows, as the work represents a stunning array of portraiture, landscape, and even innovative modern painting. Warner said he was proud of the quality of paintings that the museum was able to borrow, listing Henry Fuseli’s 1781 “The Nightmare” as his favorite of the borrowed works. The semi-erotic painting, sinister and delicate, is emblematic of his era in British art.
Also, “Juncture,” a work by Jenny Saville, makes it onto the top of Warner’s list.
“It’s my favorite of the moderns,” Warner said. “Saville is only in her 30s but already she’s established a position for herself among great British painters.”
Other highlights of this vast exhibit, the BAC’s most expensive ever, include Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1818 “Dort or Dordrecht,” which grandly captures the scene and sensation of a great boat becalmed in harbor at dusk, or “Diana Sackville” by Joshua Reynolds, which is representative of late 18th century portraiture, dynamic and elegant.
Warner emphasizes the fact that the exhibit, while about beautiful works of art, is also about “Anglophilia.”
“A second objective of the program was to show how rich American collections are in British painting,” Warner said. “Also, something about the Anglophilic tastes of American collections and museums.”
Though the BAC has extensive collections works by famous British painters John Constable and George Stubbs, they opted to keep their presence at a minimum in this exhibit. Though there is a small room devoted entirely to George Stubbs, two of the paintings are not from Yale’s collection.
“In truth you could pick a fine collection from ours or the Huntington’s holdings,” Warner said. “But we wanted to show how British paintings are collected throughout the United States.”