Taste is that one of our senses that puts us in contact with palatable bodies by means of the sensation which they arouse in the organ designed to judge them. – Brillat-Savarin, “The Physiology of Taste” (1825)
If you missed the Gere Collection at the Frick last month, my advice is to go to the museum anyway and let Fragonard console you for your loss.
“Landscape Oil Sketches” is the catchy title for a show of small pieces that were painted directly from nature and then used as a basis for larger, more finished landscapes with added mythical, historical, or biblical figures. It was a practice, no, almost a philosophy-of painting that lasted from the early 17th century to the late 19th century. It had suggested subjects: ruins, falls, clouds, rocks, twisted roots and rills. One of the leading practitioners, de Valenciennes, set the time limit for doing one at half an hour, in order to catch the fleeting effects of light. I’d say they cheated on that, perhaps going back the next day at the same time, but if they didn’t, or even if they did, they were technical geniuses with oil paint.
These works were not collectibles until that rogue John Gere and his wife Charlotte, a couple with obviously more taste than cash, decided that they were. That was in the 1950s; they went on collecting for forty years, inspiring other people to do the same, and inviting the circle over to their house to sip sherry and eyeball the latest acquisitions. The collection wasn’t shown publicly until 1999, so we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them until now.
These paintings are the precursors to Impressionism. They are darker in tone, the oil paint doesn’t have as much of a presence in itself, and the brushstrokes are not as gestural, but they do seem to have a related sense of light and life. The heyday of making these sketches also stopped at about the same time as the Impressionists took over plein air, insisting that theirs were paintings in and of themselves, not merely studies.
There are some real beauties in this collection. “Green Mountains,” by Josephus Augustus Knip, has a striking composition from across the room, with a foreground shadow of the mountains and an unmistakably high altitude sky. Andreas Schelfhout’s “Landscape with Cumulus Clouds” presents a creamy foreground and a narrow strip of horizon and clouds that start to move toward you if you rest your eyes on them for a moment. I know, I checked on this twice because I couldn’t believe it. Maybe it’s the flatness of the creamy foreground, or is that just unpainted, primed canvas?
Two details of landscape, Simon Denis’s “A Torrent at Tivoli,” depicting a stream moving through rocks, and Francois Desportes’s “A Study of Two Trees,” with light flickering through dark leaves to touch the trunk, are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
Degas is there, Corot is represented, Camuccini’s really good, and Lord Leighton is a heavy presence as well, although I don’t care much for him, or at least not yet. But taste develops, and the Lord might be my favorite next year.
Those Geres had oodles of taste. It’s not just the individual paintings that are special, it’s the collection, too. They had a highly developed sense of what constitutes quality in landscape oil sketching. Contemporary art often just asks us to grasp the point intellectually. I’m not sure taste has much of a part to play there. Works made of concrete blocks, for example, require only the simplest visual discrimination.
Is it an accident that the word “taste” has been used to describe the discernment necessary to enjoy both painting and food? I don’t think so. For example, do all eggs taste the same? I don’t think so.
Therefore, on your way home some day soon, stop at our Bedford Avenue health food store and buy a carton of Country Hen eggs (so precious, they’re only sold six at a time). Also, get a loaf of French Country or Seven Grain sliced bread and a stick of sweet butter (unsalted).
Next morning, put two eggs in a bowl of warm water so they don’t crack when you carefully spoon them into a pot of boiling water filled just enough to cover them. Put the timer on for three minutes (or three minutes for four eggs). I use the microwave as a timer; which is to me its most useful function. Depress the toast.
After three minutes, take the eggs out and immediately rinse them in cold water for a few seconds. Shell them into a bowl and mash them with a lot of salt and fresh ground black pepper. Stop to admire the color of the yolk: a cadmium yellow deep with a touch of cadmium red, or is it just the tiniest spot of alizarin? Butter the toast lavishly and eat them together. A couple of strips of bacon don’t hurt. You might also serve half a glass of ice cold Chablis with this, although I haven’t tried that yet.
ContributorCathy Nan Quinlan