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Like Breath on Glass

Like Breath on Glass
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When I was doing graduate work at Simmons College back in the early 1970s, I often spent my lunch break next door at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, that elegant little palazzo frozen in time on Boston’s Fens. The art, the architecture, and the atmosphere, especially the indoor garden, were like a vacation abroad, if only for an hour.

When a course I was taking in the literature of the humanities required us to select a single work in the Gardner collection to research and document in detail, I selected not Vermeer’s “The Concert,” which was my favorite piece (and that was stolen from the museum in 1990), but a wonderfully obscure and easily overlooked painting entitled “Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Battersea Reach” by James McNeill Whistler. What fascinated me about that Whistler nocturne of the London waterfront shrouded in fog was how with an economy of means the artist had managed to render both a realistic likeness of the place and a nearly abstract canvas — just a few dabs and smudges on a field of gray-blue conjuring both an actual and an aesthetic atmosphere.

“Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Battersea Reach” is now one of 40 paintings by 15 artists featured in “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (through October 19) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Focusing on the American fashion for the ethereal in art between 1872 and 1919, “Like Breath on Glass,” takes its title from Whistler’s 1880 statement that “Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.”

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an expatriate American artist in London who became one of the chief proponents of “art for art’s sake,” an aesthete surely but also a bon vivant, wit and rascal who once sued the art critic John Ruskin for writing of another of his nocturnes, that he had “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

The idea that a painting as lovely and serene as a Whistler nocturne might once have been considered controversial reminds us of the power that new art still has to shock and offend. If you see something you don’t like or, more to the point, don’t understand, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Posterity may judge it to be a masterpiece and you to be a philistine.

George Inness (1825-1894), the co-star of “Like Breath on Glass,” is one of America’s foremost landscape painters, having been associated with both the Hudson River School and the Tonalist movement. Inness was less interested in accurately representing nature, often around his home in Montclair, New Jersey, than he was in capturing its essence. An artist profoundly moved by nature’s awesome displays, he is said to have exclaimed of a sunset “My God, oh how beautiful!” just before he collapsed and died.

In addition to atmospheric works by Whistler and Inness, “Like Breath on Glass” features “soft” paintings by artists such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and John Henry Twachtman, who are generally associated with American Impressionism, and Edward Steichen, the Tonalist painter who became the founder of the Photo-Secession and one of America’s first important photographers.

There is curatorial genius in bringing together works of a shared aesthetic, one deeply influenced by the spiritual revivalism of the 19th century. The Clark might also have included, but did not, works by Albert Pinkham Ryder, another great American painter by moonlight.

What one might see in these soft paintings is the makings of a gentle revolution, a 19th century haze out of which arose the abstract art that would become America’s most important contribution to world art.

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