BENTONVILLE, Ark. — A superb short course in United States art history — from portraits of George Washington to Andy Warhol's “Dolly Parton” — is offered by the permanent collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Opened last November and user-friendly due to free admission to its permanent collection, the fishlike forms of the museum, designed by Moshe Safdie, integrate it into the green landscape beautifully.
Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington, standing and looking vigorous in a blue uniform, offers a nice contrast to Gilbert Stuart's more thoughtful oil of the same subject, seated and dressed in black.
A silvery gown rivals the visual appeal of the pale skin of “Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth),” coolly looking back at us, in a 1765 colonial portrait by John Singleton Copley.
John Vanderlyn supplies us with a skinny, horizontal view of “Niagara and the Rapids,” and Francis Guy gives us an early, evocative, 1820 glimpse of a “Winter Scene in Brooklyn.” Both works have been borrowed from the museum's permanent collection, and are on view in the temporary, fee-based, “Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision” show at the museum through Sept. 3.
Grabbing our attention, too, are the dramatically crossed tail feather of one of two exotic birds in “The Gems of Brazil” by Martin Johnson Heade, who is well represented in the museum's permanent collection.
Stooped and anonymous Nantucket “Cranberry Pickers” emerge from the tall grass in a low-key but very effective oil by Eastman Johnson, done in about 1879. Equally convincing visually is “The Return of the Gleaner,” an oil by Winslow Homer that captures the sharp look to her left of a woman with a hayfork on her shoulder.
Childe Hassam communicates the magic of “Paris at Twilight” in a small 1887 oil, and John Henry Twachtman relies on “September Sunshine” to partly dematerialize the back of his house in Connecticut.
Other outstanding impressionistic works include William Merritt Chase's oil of women and children in white picking “Seaside Flowers,” and Maurice Brazil Prendergast's watercolor of people at a Boston area beach.
Mary Cassatt relies on bravura brushwork and shades of white to convey the pleasure of “The Reader,” and Thomas Wilmer Dewing draws us into the intimacy between “The Fortune Teller” and her subject.
Making a solitary, nearly life-size standing figure, emerging from the darkness, work for them, brilliantly, are Robert Henri and Alfred Henry Maurer, in giant oils done in the early 20th century. Henri depicts the redheaded “Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes,” and Maurer portrays “Jeanne,” wearing a long white dress, as she peers at us under the brim of a raffish, bird-adorned straw hat.
Almost Edgar Degas-like is Everett Shinn's 1906 oil of audience members watching or looking back at us while two women perform in front of a green theatrical curtain that suggests a terrace vista. Even more modern, as well as alluring and naively appealing, is Milton Avery's large 1948 oil of two female “Nudes,” reduced to simple outlines and planes of color.
Amply demonstrating the continuing power of abstract expressionism is Joan Mitchell's untitled oil of a field of multicolored brush marks, energizing the giant off-white canvas on which they are painted.
More focused and intense in terms of color is Grace Hartigan's 1962 oil of “Clark's Cove,” while her 1949 oil, “Rough, Ain't It,” combines color, heavy texture and haphazard drips to make its point.
Counteracting the excesses of “action painting” is Joseph Alber's “Homage to the Square: Joy,” an oil in which pure squares within squares of yellow and orange seem to radiate with meditational energy.
Offering a wonderfully witty as well as flat and deadpan commentary on the tall standing women of Henri and Maurer is Wayne Thiebaud's 1963 oil of a “Supine Woman.” Wearing a white dress and black high heels, Thiebaud's woman lies motionless on her back across the white picture plane, staring upward, at nothing.
A woman's hand, with polished nails, holding a cigarette, in front of her lush red lips, as she takes a deep drag, becomes the “Smoker,” with the background eliminated, in a 1973 oil by Tom Wesselman.
Capturing the country icon status of a red-lipped, lavender eye-lidded, golden-curled “Dolly Parton,” masterfully, is Andy Warhol's 1985 depiction of her head, done with polymer paint and silk-screen ink.
The Crystal Bridges permanent collection, available free to the public, with admission sponsored by Walmart, is highly recommended and well worth a trip to Bentonville to see.
— John Brandenburg