The Detroit Institute of Arts has paired two small special exhibitions to great effect — “Monet: Framing Life” and “Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage.” Both shows open Sunday.
The two operate in nice counterpoint, with Claude Monet’s avant-garde, incipient Impressionism providing a sharp contrast to the academic formality and grandeur of Frederic Edwin Church’s luminous landscapes.
The two were working at roughly the same time, though the American was 14 years older than the Frenchman, and from a very different artistic generation. All the same, the question naturally arises — were they aware of one another?
“Monet would have heard of Church,” said Kenneth Myers, DIA chief curator who organized the Church show, noting that the artist’s “Niagara” took the Silver Medal at Paris’ 1867 Exposition Universelle, which Monet would likely have attended.
But at least in the early 1870s, the time frame “Monet” covers, the French artist was still relatively unknown outside Paris.
“Church was nearing the end of his career,” said Jill Shaw, DIA associate curator of European art, “while Monet was at the start of his. Certainly a few people knew about him,” she added, “but he wasn’t the Monet we know today.”
“Monet: Framing Life” focuses on 1872-1876 when Monet and his family lived in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, where the artist and his friend, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, began their revolutionary march toward a new style that would, by 1877, be dubbed “Impressionism.”
“That’s why this show is exciting,” Shaw said. “We’re taking Monet out of the artistic stratosphere, and reintroducing him as a person with family and friends at a time in life when he’s not a superstar yet.”
Monet’s family appears in a number of canvases — Shaw suggests that was cheaper than hiring models. Friends, too, apparently. Is the affectionate couple in the background of the 1873 “Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil” Renoir and his wife? There’s no knowing, but it’s fun to speculate.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of this show are several portraits of Monet that Renoir painted.
More importantly, in Argenteuil, Shaw noted, “We see Monet move from a conservative artistic approach to something much more avant-garde.”
Unlike Church’s bombastic, sunset-saturated portraits of ancient ruins, the Monet paintings — just 11 in number — adopt the intimate focus that became Impressionism’s defining trait, with its emphasis on ordinary moments in ordinary lives.
A particular treat is the way the museum has hung the DIA’s one Monet — formerly known as “Gladioli,” but properly renamed “Rounded Flower Bed” after Shaw dug into its history. Description would ruin the surprise, but rest assured — you’ll be delighted on finding it in the last Monet gallery.
We pass from “Rounded Flower Bed” right into the first room of “Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage.”
A few years before Monet moved to the Paris suburbs, Church moved his family to Beirut, Lebanon, and spent a year criss-crossing the Middle East, when it was still all part of the Ottoman Empire, in search of ruined historic glory.
It’s hard not to envy the artist. Church, who got his training years before from the master of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, got to visit the ancient world before the floods of tourists and vicious wars degraded so much of the Roman remains.
Indeed, when he painted “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” in 1870, the city was a small Ottoman outpost.
Church also visited the Syrian city of Baalbek, as well as majestic Petra. That’s the lost city in present-day Jordan where the Romans carved a stupendous classical facade into red sandstone cliffs.
Church was a footloose artist his entire career — in previous decades he painted the Adirondacks and White Mountains, as well as the eruption of the volcano Cotopaxi in Ecuador, a canvas the DIA owns. (The other large Church in the museum’s collection is “Syria by the Sea.”)
“Unlike most successful painters, Church doesn’t go to Europe to study,” noted curator Myers. “Instead, he puts his money toward exploring places in the western hemisphere,” and later, in his one trip to the Middle East.
There’s no denying Church is a master of dramatic lighting. His “Parthenon” is flooded with rosy light, as are the columns from the Temple of Zeus.
Church had an undeniable talent for expressing light. Perhaps the most striking example of this gift is the 1878 “Evening on the Sea,” which is muted and haunting. Red light illuminates one corner of the sky, while black smoke from a small steamer cuts a blotchy, meandering path beneath the glowing clouds.
‘Monet: Framing Life’
‘Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage’
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward, Detroit
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays;
9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-17) for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents; $16 adults; $7 children (online purchases have $3.50 service fee); DIA members enter free. One ticket is good for both shows, and rest of museum.