Tucked away on the American Wing's mezzanine, the Met Museum's current exhibit, American Painters in Italy, is a delightful reminder of the era before World War I when American artists still found it de rigueur to make a pilgrimage to Europe in order to study and copy the works of the old masters, thereby acknowledging that however wealthy the United States may have been at the turn of the twentieth century it still lacked any real confidence in its own art and culture.
As one looks at the works by John Singer Sargent (who was actually born in Italy), George Henry Smillie, George Inness, and William Stanley Haseltine one is reminded irresistably of the novels of Henry James. There is about these paintings the languor of Americans making the Grand Tour, staying at the finest hotels and mingling with the best society while forever painting and sketching their picturesque surroundings. And it's this glimpse of a vanished world that gives to their works a strong sense of nostalgia. Though Picasso and Matisse were already active in this period, other than in the works of Maurice Prendergast there is little sense here of the modernist revolution that was about to engulf twentieth century art. Even the single work on display by James McNeill Whistler, Note in Pink and Brown (charcoal and pastel, c. 1880), is thoroughly picturesque.
As the museum's website notes, the show has been divided into three parts:
"American Painters in Italy begins with views of the landscape around Rome, the Campagna, and southern Italy. The second section features images of Venice, which was a particularly popular destination for artists in the late nineteenth century. The final section focuses on works in which the artists copied Italian art as an educational exercise or to signify their sophistication and worldliness."
By far the most imteresting works art are those by Sargent to whom the lion's share of the exhibit has rightfully been devoted. His watercolors are not detailed but rather evocative, and it is their suggestiveness that captures the viewer's attention as the scenes depicted are vividly brought to life. Among these are the Venetian street scenes which eschew studies of the major monuments in favor of more intimate glimpses of backwater canals and alleyways not frequented by tourists. The best of these is Venetian Canal (watercolor and graphite, 1913) that contains a distant view of the Church of San Barnaba. In subject matter and style it stands in marked contrast to Prendergast's Rialto Bridge (watercolor and graphite, c. 1911-1912) whose bright colors fail to mask the trite choice of subject matter.
Perhaps the finest work at the exhibit is Sargent's Tiepelo Ceiling, Milan (watercolor and graphite, c. 1898-1900), a brilliantly colored phantasmagoria that is not so much a study of the palazzo's ceiling as a reimagining of it.
There are several other works - such as Jasper Francis Cropsey's Torre dei Schiavi, The Roman Campagna (white gouache and graphite, 1853) and William Stanley Haseltine's Baths of Trajan (watercolor, gouache and charcoal, c. 1882) - that are most interesting for the views they provide of nineteenth century Italy before it was forever ruined by modern day tourism.
The exhibit continues through June 17, 2018.