No matter how many times she leads tours through the 10 galleries showcasing the Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) blockbuster exhibition, “Impressionism to Modernism: The Keithley Collection,” CMA deputy director and chief curator Heather Lemonedes Brown never fails to marvel at the breadth it encompasses.
“Most exhibits are thematic or based on a single artist, period, or medium. But there’s something for everyone here,” says Brown, as she points to canvases by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Andrew Wyeth displayed with porcelain vases and bowls that have remained pristine despite being more than 500 years old.
“This show,” she adds, “is really about a pair of collectors who had eclectic tastes and a great love for many forms of art.”
The Port of l'Estaque, the Pier 1906 - artist Georges BraqueOn view through Sunday, Jan. 8, the exhibit is a treasure trove of more than 100 works of art amassed over two decades by Shaker Heights residents Joe and Nancy Keithley, who donated their collection to CMA in 2020.
In addition to focusing on Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern European and American paintings, the couple’s benevolent gift also features a selection of watercolors, European and American decorative arts and Chinese and contemporary Japanese ceramics.
The magnificent collection is valued at more than $100 million and represents the biggest single gift of art in monetary value received by the museum since the bequest of $34 million left by Leonard C. Hanna in 1958.
“Part of the pleasure for me is seeing that everyone seems to have a different favorite work of art in the exhibition,” Brown says. “Sometimes I’m surprised by what people really respond to. It might be a Milton Avery painting. It could be a Japanese contemporary ceramic or an Impressionist painting or an Old Master Dutch drawing from the 1600s. It just depends on what moves people.
“Loving art is very subjective,” the curator adds, “but I hope we’ve installed the show in juxtapositions that provoke comparison and connection.”
Here are a few highlights:
• Fruit and Fruit Dishes: Pierre Bonnard, circa 1930, oil on canvas.
“I’ve always absolutely loved this painting,” Brown says. “At first it seems like a very, very, simple and relatable subject — a table with glasses and dishes that contain fruit. But I would suggest that this painting is a little more complex than viewers might first imagine as just a pretty still life and keep on walking. Bonnard was known to create his images not from life, but from memory, and infuse them with personal emotion and feeling. This is a theme not only about beautiful summer fruits on the table — it’s also a suspended moment in time centering on the fleeting joy of summer and friends getting together for an afternoon to share a meal. Bonnard’s artistic imagination is reflected in the wonderful streaks of purple and turquoise on the white tablecloth. He didn’t include human figures, but instead instilled a sense of playfulness with a glimpse of a dog and cat circling the table—something many of us who have pets can relate to.”
• End of Olsons: Andrew Wyeth, 1969, oil on canvas.
“Unlike the Bonnard painting, which is exuberant and joyful, this work is much more somber in its palette,” Brown says. “The painting concludes the nearly-30-year relationship Wyeth had with the family, which ended with their deaths. The brushwork includes exacting detail of the weathered shingles and brickwork on the abandoned house, and the trees in the distance across the water. The poignant painting clearly resonates on an emotional and melancholy level for the artist since the Olsons were like family to him.”
• Yellow-Glazed Bowl: 1505-21, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen kilns, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Zhengde mark and reign (1505-21). Porcelain with monochrome yellow glaze.
“The historical Chinese ceramics in the collection were driven by Nancy Keithley’s passion for them,” Brown says. “It’s truly extraordinary that despite how thin the porcelain is, this flawless bowl survived intact. The breathtaking color is known as ‘imperial yellow’ and, during the Ming period, ceramics of this quality were made for the imperial household. The base has the seal of the Zhengde reign. This is perfection in simplicity.”
Fruit and Fruit Dishes c. 1930 - artist Pierre Bonnard• The Port of l’Estaque, the Pier: Georges Braque, 1906, oil on canvas.
“This is an amazing painting for the Keithleys to have acquired,” Brown says. “Many people know the artist as a Cubist, when he was painting alongside Picasso and they were spurring each other on in their creativity. But before then, Braque was painting in the south of France and part of a group of artists called the Fauves, which is French for ‘the wild beast.’ They were called that because they painted in big, bold brushstrokes with strong and nonrepresentational colors.
“This style of painting represents the cutting edge of modern art, where color and paint are used very expressively and forms—such as the boats and mountains—are intentionally simplified. Instead of covering the entire canvas with thick paint, Braque is keeping portions of it blank. It’s not because he didn’t know how to paint with detail. It’s because he’s letting the paint show itself as paint. The hands of the artist really come through here. The Fauves period was a short-lived one, so to have acquired this Braque is a great coup.”
"Impressionism to Modernism: The Keithley Collection" runs through Sunday, Jan. 8 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Tickets are $15 for adults; $12 for seniors aged 65 and older; $10 for adults groups of 10 or more; $8 for member guests. Museum members and children under age five are free.