Meeting the masters at Delaware’s Somerville Manning Gallery
WHYY – Newsworks
by Terry Conway
Picasso and Renoir are in town, as are Georgia O’Keeffe and John Singer Sargent. Well, sort of.
Handsomely displayed in two large rooms that overlook the Brandywine, the “American and European Masters” show at the Somerville Manning Gallery offers a glimpse at many of the key art movements that took place in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century.
Glance around the room and you’ll find works by Englishman David Hockney, and the American impressionists Mary Cassatt, Maurice Prendergast, Robert Lewis Reid and Jane Peterson.
There are gorgeous landscape paintings by Charles Burchfield and Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington and John Singer Sargent, as well as abstractionists Helen Frankenthaler and Hans Hofmann. Keep an eye out for pop artist Tom Wesselmann and a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey.
Also featured are selected works by Jamie, Andrew and N.C. Wyeth. The Somerville Manning Gallery has been celebrated for over three decades for their specialty in the works of the Wyeth family; in this show, the Wyeths are contextualized with other contemporaneous art works.
All the artists are represented in major museums, but taking in their wondrous works in the intimacy of the local gallery adds a striking impact.
Reinventing the gallery
Each work in the show tells a distinctive story. Each transports and enriches our experience of the artist. Some we know well, some we should know better.
It’s a gem of a show, and well, this being a gallery, every work of art is for sale. When Somerville Manning launched its first Masters show in 2010, the idea in those recession years was to reinvent the gallery with innovation.
Over the years, the gallery has presented individual works by renowned, historical artists valued at more than $3 million.
“Sadie (Somerville) and I spent years going to New York to the American painting auctions and galleries because of our work with the Wyeths, so we decided to use our knowledge and contacts to develop a show of American masters,” said owner Vickie Manning, who attends New York auctions to keep tabs on the art market.
“Most of the paintings come from private collectors and art dealers,” Manning explained. “After 32 years in the business, I know pretty much everyone. The painting could be from someone who bought a Wyeth who has other important paintings they’ve decided to sell.”
Why do they sell?
“For different reasons,” she said. “They want to upgrade, or shift directions to another painter; divorce, death or they’re just done with it.”
Located in a stone textile mill from 1814, Somerville Manning’s show gives art lovers from the region an opportunity to view many fine works that are inaccessible without a journey to a prominent city museum. It’s an ambitious venture, and one that comes with a challenge.
“Unlike a museum, a gallery is limited to what is available in the market place,” Manning related with a half-smile. “I can’t curate from archives all over the country. There are other galleries staging American Masters shows, but I’m not aware of any doing it like we are. Every year people come up to us and thank us for bringing such a unusual show to Wilmington.”
American and European masterworks
A pair of works by Maurice Prendergast, “Bayside Marblehead” and “The Gondolas,” are hung side by side. Prendergast (1858-1924) painted forceful works of art, with staccato brushstrokes and startling bright colors. The artist’s assimilation of the avant-garde styles of Cézanne and Matisse is evident in his use of vivid colors in intricate, decorative patterns that draw attention to the picture’s surface.
Across the room is British artist David Hockney’s photocollage “Walking in the Zen Garden at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, 1983.” He created works, known as “joiners,” which consist of a series of photographs taken from different viewpoints that overlap to form a single piece.
There’s also a Picasso to experience.
In “Goat’s Head,” created in 1950, the legendary Spanish artist outlined the profile of a goat. He utilized crisp, brown lines to delineate the profile of the goat’s head and to add a sense of texture to the piece, conveying the feel of the goat’s fur and horns. These brown lines contrast sharply against the white background, causing the image of the goat to stand out to the viewer. The goat’s head appears as a delicate figure with a thin neck and elongated face, calmly gazing forward.
The exhibition includes an oil painting by one of the founding members of the Impressionist movement, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Paysage a Benerville” (1895.) The artist is best known for his depictions of pretty children, flowers, pleasant scenes, and curvy women.
There are works by Mary Cassatt, one of the leading artists in the Impressionist movement. Born in 1844 in Allegheny City, Pa., she spent much of her life in Paris. Cassatt is best known for her portraits of children and her groupings of mothers and their children. “Sara” is a fine example.
Other show highlights include Alexander Calder’s ink-on-paper “Ringmaster and Horse,” circa 1931, and a Frederic Remington oil of a famous horse being schooled for a New York Horse Show, “Getting Hunters in Horse-Show Form,” 1895.
Owing to her background as an equestrian, Manning was specifically contacted to sell the Remington.
“It was an illustration for Harpers magazine in 1895,” Manning related. “Ontario won the high-jumping championship at Madison Square Garden. He was owned by the brother-in law of Belmont Park founder, August Belmont. During that time period, illustrations were done in black and white. They weren’t able to produce good color reproduction for another decade.”
The Brandywine Valley icon N.C. Wyeth was remembered by his children as being a strong and monumental man, one who sought the thrill of discovery that came with exploring the American West and living closely to the natural landscape he loved to paint.
In “Octave Plunged,” a man fights a raging current. Viewed from below the falls over which his hewn raft is about to plummet, the painting depicts a lone traveler pitched heroically against the elements. There is also a lovely landscaped titled, “Worm Fence.”
Andrew Wyeth’s watercolor “The Green Dory” is striking for its simplicity, its harmonious hues and for being completed when he was just 23-years-old.
The work depicts a man preparing to launch his boat. Shades of blue and green become the water, sky and atmosphere. Wyeth focuses on the ordinary to reveal the essential character of place. In the process, he documents a timeless moment.
Every brushstroke is measured and precise. The result is mesmerizing.
“Kestrel” is a fine example of Jamie Wyeth’s style and fondness for the out-of-the ordinary. The kestrel, a hunting bird and a member of the falcon family, is perched on a ledge posed against sun-flecked stormy water and sky. Wyeth was sitting in his bathtub in Maine looking out when the kestrel posed for him.
Perhaps it suggests a deliberate play of inside and outside, an appropriate ambiguity for a bird of prey at rest.
“That is the fascination of paintings,” Manning explained. “You have the tonality, the colors, the feeling of it. Possible metaphors might be there as well. You wonder what was in Jamie’s mind as he was painting that particular kestrel.”