A quiet moment in the galleries at the McNay. Photo by Page Graham.
A quiet moment in the galleries at the McNay. Photo by Page Graham.

The McNay Art Museum scores an impressive coup with the opening of Intimate Impressionism. This collection of nearly 70 Impressionist and post-Impressionist masters is on world tour from the National Gallery of Art and is available for viewing in San Antonio until Jan. 4, 2015.

After stops in Rome and San Francisco, the McNay represents the midpoint in the tour, which also includes upcoming dates in Tokyo and Seattle.

Paul and Ailsa Mellon with Father, ca. 1913. National Gallery of Art Museum Archive, Washington, D.C.
Paul and Ailsa Mellon with Father, ca. 1913. National Gallery of Art Museum Archive, Washington, D.C.

This exhibition is sourced largely from the collections of Ailsa Mellon Bruce and Paul Mellon, the children of legendary banker, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon, who founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Although subjected to a tumultuous and often emotionally wrenching upbringing, Ailsa and Paul were seriously influenced by their father’s pursuit of collecting art for personal enjoyment in their family homes and continued the tradition throughout their lives.

The young Mellons also continued the tradition of philanthropy. In the course of their lifetimes of collecting they always procured works with not only the idea of deep personal enjoyment, but also with an eye to donating the art and furthering the display of that art in the public trust. Paul served as the first president of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees and oversaw the conception and construction of the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei in the 1970s. It is the renovation of the East Building (scheduled through 2016) that has created the opportunity for the National Gallery to share these small French paintings, usually exhibited solely in Washington, with the nation and the world.

In so many ways The McNay is a natural fit for this touring exhibition. There are numerous parallels between the legacy of the Mellon family collections, especially the contributions of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, and the collection that Marion Koogler McNay amassed at her home in San Antonio from the 1920’s until her death in 1950. This is the collection that became the bedrock foundation of the first museum in Texas to focus on modern art. They had in common an affinity for the intimate works by Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard and Van Gogh. Subsequently, the museum has built upon this collection with acquisitions of works by Boudin, Sisley, Manet, Vollon and Vuillard.

Ron Nirenburg congratulates William J. Chiego at Tuesday's luncheon. Photo by Page Graham.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg congratulates McNay Director William J. Chiego at Tuesday’s luncheon. Photo by Page Graham.

On Tuesday, the McNay opened the exhibition with previews for museum members and the press to rave reviews from those in attendance. It is quite dizzying to absorb such a large collection, considering the provenance and the value of the collection which likely rests in the billions of dollars. At the event, District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg gave kudos to the McNay for securing this important landmark exhibition. He very succinctly points out that when we talk about San Antonio, we talk about our cultural history and that our profile as a major city is gaining momentum.

“I am proud to be here today to welcome this exhibition, which puts us on par with other major cities internationally,” Nirenberg said. “This is a victory for all San Antonio. Congratulations to the McNay on making this happen.”

Nirenberg presented an Official Proclamation on behalf of Mayor Ivy Taylor and the City of San Antonio to McNay Director William J. Chiego. Nirenberg added that “the museum and staff are second to none. Thank you for the work that you do.”

Mary Morton leads the tour through the exhibit. Photo by Page Graham.
Mary Morton leads the tour through the exhibit. Photo by Page Graham.

Also in attendance for the opening festivities was Mary Morton, Curator and Head of the Department of French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art. She led a concise and informative tour through the galleries, touching on favorites and giving guidance in understanding the depth and breadth of the works we were viewing.

She made an interesting point that the Impressionist period developed in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), a time during which Paris was subjected to siege and privation. You see in the subject matter a certain appreciation for the simpler things in life – pretty girls, leisure time spent with friends and family, the simplicity of country life, or the distractions of holidays at the shore.

“This movement was about embracing the joy of life,” she said.

Morton and Chiego discuss Pissarro landscapes. Photo by Page Graham.
Morton and Chiego discuss Pissarro landscapes. Photo by Page Graham.

Although we made our way rather quickly through the collection, Morton stressed that we should take the opportunity to come again and spend quality time with the works to truly absorb them.

Taking a moment to gaze deeply into the surfaces of these pieces is truly a magical experience. The loose, seemingly casual strokes manage to capture such minute detail. The small scale of the paintings is remarkable – the largest painting in the show is “The Artist’s Studio” by Pierre Bonnard, measuring approximately 24? x 29?.

Gauguin's self portrait. Photo by Page Graham.
Gauguin’s self portrait. Photo by Page Graham.

The telling nature of the self-portraiture is also striking. Gauguin portrays himself with quite a rakish quality in his “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière” while the young Edgar Degas appears quite conservative and diffident in his “Self-Portrait with White Collar.” The subtle gender politics embodied in Édouard Vuillard’s intimate portraits centered upon his mother’s household. All hold truths and secrets. 

Chiego made the case for the quiet importance of this collection with his foreword for the exhibition catalogue.

“In an era when many artists favor working on a very large scale, this exhibition will give our public an opportunity to encounter paintings that reward one-on-one looking, offering a personal conversation with the artist,” he stated. “It is a special opportunity to see under one roof the superb paintings acquired by these remarkable collectors. Their generous gifts have allowed these objects of private enjoyment to become public treasures.”

Chiego also took a few minutes during the press luncheon to highlight some of the new programs that are coming to the fore with this exhibition, including the opportunity to book docent-led tours for groups of 10 or more. Options include Tour D’Art & Lunch presented by Fresh Horizons Creative Catering, or one may opt for C’est Magnifique, an intimate tour experience including champagne or coffee and Bakery Lorraine macarons. To book, or for more information on these tours, call 210-805-1767 or send an email to tours@mcnayart.org.

There will also be Oui! Wednesdays, French Thursdays, and Voilà Sundays, as well as a wide variety of talks, lectures, films, performances, family programming and workshops. Of special note is the fact that the museum will be extending Sunday hours until 7 p.m., allowing for more time to connect with this very special exhibition and all of the museum’s wonderful collections.

The best way to keep up with ongoing events is to subscribe to McNay Updates on its website or e-newsletter. For membership? visit the McNay website.

*Featured/top image: A quiet moment in the galleries at the McNay. Photo by Page Graham.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...