An Eye for a Masterpiece

Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:23pm

Art collectors Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were trendsetters. The two reclusive Welsh sisters fell in love with modern French art in the early 20th century, long before most people had even realized who Claude Monet was.

The sisters knew what they liked and spent decades collecting more than 250 pieces of artwork to bedeck their Victorian country house, Gregynog Hall. Over time, their collection grew to include paintings by Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne, among others. A portion of these pieces went on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday in the exhibition “Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces From the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales.—

The exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts and the National Museum Wales, features 50 paintings, many of which have never been on display in the United States. Upon their deaths, the Davies sisters donated their collection to the National Museum Wales under one condition: that the works would be shown to as wide an audience as possible.

“I’m sure they would be delighted that they’re being shown here in Washington,— says Oliver Fairclough, curator of the National Museum Wales.

The exhibit is in three rooms on the second floor of the Corcoran. It begins with the work of romantic painter J.M.W. Turner before continuing to impressionism as exemplified by the works of Monet and Renoir. The second room is devoted exclusively to impressionist artists and features three Monets including one of his famous “Waterlilies.— The final room of the exhibition delves into post-impressionism and the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Cézanne. In fact, the collection contains some of the first pieces of work by Cézanne ever displayed to the public in Great Britain.

“They did this at a time when modern French art was mostly ignored in England,— says Beatrice Gralton, a curator at the Corcoran, adding that the Davies sisters’ collection was “groundbreaking.—

For example, the centerpiece of the exhibition is the now-famous Renoir painting “La Parisienne,— often known as “The Blue Lady.— When the work was first shown in 1874, it was barely acknowledged, though the Davies sisters kept their eyes on it and purchased it in 1913, when it gained esteem as a masterpiece.

The collection will be on display at the Corcoran through April 25. In addition to the exhibition, the Corcoran is offering a number of educational programs in conjunction with “Turner to Cézanne.— Next week, the museum will present a workshop on the various techniques employed in the exhibit as well as the stylistic innovations that shaped artwork of that time. On Feb. 24, Hunter College professor Joachim Pissarro will discuss Camille Pissarro and van Gogh in “When Did Impressionism Become Post-Impressionism?—

More information on lectures and workshops, including several art classes geared toward children, can be found at Corcoran.org.