The North Carolina Central University Art Museum will present an exhibition of five paintings loaned from the Duke-Semans Fine Arts Foundation and the Nasher Museum of Art beginning Feb. 4. The exhibition was facilitated by Douglass Zinn, the foundation’s longtime executive director, and is the latest of many collaborative agreements between Durham’s two universities.
The artists represented are universally regarded among the best working in the realist tradition in America and Europe: John-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). The paintings will be on exhibit through Feb. 28.
The paintings testify to the increasing sophistication of American artists working in oil in the late 19th century, particularly in portraiture. Wyeth’s single watercolor demonstrates that the medium, though previously associated principally with amateurs, was perfect for producing studies and expressing the new interest in effects of light.
After training in Lyon, France, Jean-Baptiste Greuze arrived in Paris in 1750, where he sporadically attended the Académie Royale. His 1755 Salon debut was a triumph, but the acclaim went to his head. He antagonized everyone, including fellow artists, which later proved disastrous. While retaining the clear, bright colors and lighter attitude of 18th-century painting, Greuze introduced a Dutch-influenced realism into French genre painting and portraiture.
Thomas Sully was regarded as the finest portraitist in Philadelphia and one of the best in the country. His daybook overflowed with commissions from the elite of Pennsylvania and Maryland society, and the affable and levelheaded artist managed his affairs in a manner worthy of a successful portraitist. He almost single-handedly created the vogue for full-length portraiture in Philadelphia, and his career soared on a trajectory that had him painting celebrated public figures as well as the most eminent and fashionable private citizens in the vicinity.
Thomas Eakins was the most powerful figure painter and portrait painter of his time in America. He studied for five years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he drew chiefly from casts. To make up for his lack of study of living models, he entered Jefferson Medical College and took the regular courses in anatomy, including dissecting cadavers and observing operations. In 1866, when he was 22, he left for Paris, where he undertook three years of rigorous academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean Léon Gérôme. Returning to Philadelphia, he took for subjects the life of his place and period, and with uncompromising realism he built his art out of this.
John Singer Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon in Paris, mostly full-length portrayals of women. His best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velázquez, who was one of Sargent's great influences. In the 1890s he averaged 14 portrait commissions per year, none more beautiful than the genteel Mrs. John Camfield Tomlinson, nee Dora Grant (1904) in the exhibition.
Andrew Wyeth, son of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, had a vivid memory and fantastic imagination that led to a great fascination for art. He worked primarily in watercolors and egg tempera and often used shades of brown and grey. He held his first one-man show of watercolors painted around the family's summer home at Port Clyde, Maine, in 1937. It was a great success that would lead to plenty more. He was featured on the cover of American Artist as well as many other famous magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post. His first solo museum exhibition was presented in 1951 at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
The NCCU Art Museum is on Lawson Street across from the Farrison-Newton Communications Building. Every effort is made to make all museum events accessible to the handicapped. For general information or assistance, please call 919-530-6211. For group visits, please call in advance. The Museum is open Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.