A new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is, on one level, a compendium of signature American paintings from the decades surrounding the turn of the century. More than a handful of familiar classics grace the museum's handsomely installed galleries.
It is not, however, a simplistic show of greatest hits. The 71 paintings selected for "American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life: 1885- 1915" have instead been deployed to alter the established understanding of the period. The change it seeks isn't exactly cataclysmic, but it is noteworthy.
Usually, the gritty, urban images of American Realist painters like George Bellows and John Sloan are seen as having been a vigorous reaction against the prettier, more pastoral pursuits of such immediate Impressionist forebears as William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam. To that long-established position this show says: Sort of, but not quite.
Instead, the thrust of the exhibition is to display a deeper sense of continuity running through American painting from the late 1880s to the early teens. The point turns out to be well taken. Style, whether Impressionist or Realist, is curatorially regarded as merely a surface trait and an issue of less fundamental importance than subject matter, which all these paintings have in common.
To accomplish this subtle shift, the paintings have been grouped thematically, rather than chronologically or by artist or style. As the show's subtitle suggests, with its pointed allusion to the writings of the great Parisian critic Charles Baudelaire, "The Painting of Modern Life" has one eye fixed on its subject, and the other on earlier artistic developments in France.
All these pictures put the new urban milieu front and center. Galleries are devoted to overlapping considerations of street life, urban leisure and city parks.
John Sloan's famous 1914 picture of a black cat prancing through white snow is set in the back yards of a cluster of Greenwich Village apartment buildings. George Bellows' "Cliff Dwellers" (1913) aren't an ancient tribe but a teeming mass of Lower East Side tenement residents.
Even when the city isn't seen, its presence is nonetheless felt. Images of the country, for example, portray the pastoral as if it were a refuge or escape, which puts the strain of urban life in the back of your mind. John Singer Sargent's wonderful picture of the academic artist Paul Helleu and his wife sketching in a patch of tall grass, with a canoe nestled behind them, was painted in France; but the image of a nattily dressed artist working outdoors in pleasurable nature would soon be an American staple.
A gallery devoted to "The Artist as Observer" also puts the dynamic of the city on view. It begins with a great Mary Cassatt painting of musical theatergoers peering at one another through opera glasses, rather than following the action on stage. People watching is a voyeuristic, distinctly urban pastime, and this painting--perhaps the most compelling in the show--puts it front and center.
The emphasis on urbanism is understandable. Urbanism ranks as the most powerful change in American social life during the period. A rural and agrarian nation rapidly transformed itself into an urban and industrial one as the 19th Century progressed, and the process came to a crescendo in the years around 1900.
Often, the scary tumultuousness of this radical change is made comfortable and ordinary through art. J. Alden Weir's beautiful "The Red Bridge" (circa 1895) renders a looming, modern, iron truss-bridge, located just down-river from a textile factory, as if it were a dreamy, pastoral, almost Japanese decoration, full of color and light. Galloping industry may be busily rearranging traditional patterns of family life and beginning to foul the air and water, but look what ravishing pictures it affords!
In fact, one continuous thread that runs through the exhibition is this emphasis on the picturesque. Bellows' "Cliff Dwellers," which hangs at the entrance to the show and is among the most important American paintings in LACMA's own collection, may indeed be focused on a scene of urban squalor, but the tenement sure looks like fun, with its panoply of amusing characters.
The artfulness of the painting, which chronicles lives that seem unsullied and playful, speaks with an unmistakably sentimental tone that recurs again and again throughout the exhibition. A picturesque sweetness, which is obvious in Cassatt's depiction of a woman of leisure crocheting in what appears to be a public park or garden, even marks the excited boxing picture by Bellows, in which the amusing theatricality of the brutal sport is what matters.
This tone distinguishes American painting of the period most strongly from its finest French cousins, to which it was often held in thrall. Everett Shinn's "The Orchestra Pit, Old Proctor's Fifth Avenue Theater" (1906-7) shows an intimate, snail's-eye view of the musicians below the stage, with the chorus girls relegated to the distant background, in a composition that derives from various Edgar Degas pictures of the Parisian ballet from several decades before. But where Degas gives us dozens of specific portraits of the working men in the pit, enlivened by jumpy compositional effects that convey a dynamism to the theatrical scene, Shinn's even lighting, anonymity of characters and seamlessness of composition flattens out the vibrancy of the event.
Shinn muses poetically on a fragment of the urban scene, while Degas pumps up the volume, finding a metaphor for the tumult of modern life in a seemingly insignificant corner of it. The dissonant, destabilizing edginess of the best of French painting is virtually absent from the picturesque American wanna-bes, whether American Impressionists or the ostensibly grittier Realists.
The exhibition was organized jointly by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. Although trimmed by 14 paintings for its tour to Los Angeles, it still manages to show a strong connecting thread between Impressionist and Realist paintings. And that sentimental, moralizing thread could be traced back even further, into the pastoral Hudson River paintings of an earlier, pre-urban generation. With or without the city, sentimentalism is as American as apple pie.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through May 14. Closed Mondays.