Museum Of Fine Arts
IMAGINE THAT SOCIALITE Anne Bass is remodeling her closet, and instead of putting her couture dresses in storage, she’s sending them to you for safekeeping. If that seems far-fetched, consider a comparably extravagant loan happening in the art world this month: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, is bravely shipping 132 of its prized nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston while it gets a face-lift. The resulting exhibition, “The Masterpieces of French Painting From The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920,” is not only a curatorial coup but also a once-in-a-lifetime treat for Texans, who get to see the best collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works out- side Paris, no frequent-flier miles necessary.
As the MFAH’s coordinating curator, Helga Aurisch, says of the collection’s pieces, “There isn’t a bad painting amongst them.” Of course, like children, presumably all loved, some are more loved than others: Gustave Courbet’s sensuous Woman With a Parrot, for one, or the original of your favorite college dorm poster, Claude Monet’s Bridge Over a Pool of Water Lilies. There’s also Edouard Manet’s Boating, with its avant-garde cropping and vibrant cerulean, and Edgar Degas’ The Dancing Class, an exceptionally detailed gem that is one of his earliest ballerina paintings. But then there are also the luminous Renoirs, the stunning Cézannes, the melancholic Corots, and the signature works of lesser-known artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose oversized Joan of Arc draws a crowd every day at the Met. Whether you’re seeing these pieces for the first or hundredth time, they’ll all leave you impressed.
Now, if your knowledge of Impressionist art is limited to that Vincent van Gogh mug in your cupboard, don’t be intimidated: “Masterpieces” has been arranged in such a way (chronologically and by painter) as to be a sort of “Nineteenth-Century French Art for Dummies.” (Not all the show’s painters, it should be noted, hail from France or were strictly Impressionist; three of Picasso’s pre-Cubism portraits are on view, for example.) What’s more, the second-floor galleries of the Audrey Jones Beck building are strategically awash in natural light, so you’ll get a true sense of how important illumination was to the genre. Don’t say it too loudly, but these art history icons may look just as good here as they do at the Met.
And to what does the MFAH owe this grand coup? Most likely its track record: Met officials have been impressed by its ability to attract significant crowds, specifically the 350,000 who came in 2003 to see works on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The MFAH’s curators were also nimble enough to accommodate “Masterpieces” when it came together in a lightning-fast ten months, and it didn’t hurt that Gary Tinterow, the Met curator overseeing “Masterpieces,” once worked for the MFAH, as did Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s current director. Connections aside, it’s tremendously flattering to be trusted with one of the world’s preeminent collections. And with record attendance expected, there’s