“The French Connection,” an exhibit at the Hillwood Art Museum, was aptly named. It was a mixture of original oil paintings, sketches, and bronzes of 19th century French and American artists. The exhibit was on loan from local collectors, Baker and Pisano, from January 22 through March 16.
The collection included a good number of original still life figure portraits and land- scape oil paintings. As you began your self- guided tour around the expansive, wide-open gallery space, its whitewashed walls displayed paintings that at once drew you closer and made you step back.
French artist Antoine Vollon’s figure and landscape paintings were interspersed throughout the collection. It was his land- scape painting, entitled “Vue de port de Hon- fleur” that drew me in. It depicted a harbor full of sailboats; they looked almost as if they were sketched in pen and ink, rather than painted in oil, so precise were the strokes. It was surprisingly beautiful, considering it ap- peared to be colorless, done entirely in mud- dy browns and blacks. The water and the sky were blended in these muted colors, as well. Yet, this is the painting that I kept circling back to after viewing the entire exhibit.
There was something serene and so life- like about the scene that brought you into it, as if you were aboard one of the sailboats.
Although Vollon considered himself a figure painter, which he was, he became most renowned for his landscape art. He was of what the French call the “en plein aire” school of art. Like his mentor and longtime friend, fellow French painter, Daubigny, he believed in painting landscapes out in the open air.
Daubigny’s oil painting was hung along- side Vollon’s harbor scene. Considering their connection, it is not surprising that the two artists shared the same methods. In fact, I mistook his painting to be a Vollon. Daubigny’s work is done in muted, etched-like, precise brushstrokes of beiges and browns. His work is called “Le Port de Honfleur,” similar to Vollon’s in style, method and title.
I learned from the museum’s Director, Barbara Applegate, that Vollon had no formal academic training. He belonged to what is known as the French Academic Salon, whose artists competed with the academic paint- ers of 19th century France. Yet, he received France’s highest honor when he was inducted into Le Institut de France.
Because I was drawn to Vollon’s landscape art on display, I was quite surprised to learn that the oil painting of a rather menacing man in profile, entitled “Tete d’homme” was the work of the same artist. But, Vollon always described himself as a portrait artist, aspiring to be a landscape artist. The epithet given to him reads “painter’s painter.”
American artist, William Merritt Chase, a renowned 19th century artist in his own right, was a great admirer of Vollon’s style and work. Upon Vollon’s death, Chase acquired some of his oil paintings. One of them is the portrait I had come upon earlier, Vol- lon’s “Tete d’homme.” Interestingly, Chase’s work was displayed alongside this piece. A true “French connection.”
Upon exiting the museum, I was com- pelled to turn one more time to look at the dark blue-stenciled wall centered in the middle of the gallery. On it hung Vollon’s and Chase’s oil portraits. Both figure paint- ings were of a man’s head and upper torso. Vollon’s was a side profile, done in dark, mut- ed, almost monochromatic shades of browns. Even though the eyes were hooded and unde- fined, the man in the portrait left the viewer with an almost mysterious feeling, as if he sensed the viewer looking at him. Alongside Vollon’s mysterious “Tete d’homme” was his American admirer, Chase’s “Portrait of a Young Man.” In the painting, he is facing the viewer; his eyes are prominent in his face. His torso was also done in layered, muted tones. Yet, the man in Chase’s painting is not as menacing as Vollon’s. His eyes don’t seem to look out at the viewer; instead one has the impression he is observing something in the distance.
“We joke around about the ‘relation- ship’ between Vollon’s ‘Head of a Man’ (‘Tete d’homme’) and Chase’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ that is right beside it. We wonder what conversations happen between them after we leave for the night,” Applegate said.
Applegate said that the exhibit has generated a lot of interest. While she said many LIU students have visited, there have also been many visitors from the local and wider metropolitan areas, as well. Applegate said, “Everyone gets excited when works from private collections are on view in museums; otherwise, when would most people be able to see them?”
If you missed “The French Connection” exhibit, the museum has a catalog depicting much of the artwork exhibited. It is available at the museum to LIU students at a discount- ed rate of $5.00.
Upcoming exhibits include “The Masters of Fine Arts Exhibit,” which will run from April 8 through May 10. There is a public reception on April 10, from 5 to 8pm. After Memorial Day, the works of Claudia Waters, “The Figure in Motion,” will be on display.
The Hillwood Art Museum has many exhibits throughout the year, free to LIU Post students, as well as to the general public. The museum is open Monday through Saturday. For a full schedule of future exhibits, events and hours, check their website, www.liu.edu/ museum.