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Three's a Charm

Joyful American Impressionists on display at the Denver Art Museum



Talk about your good timing! In these suddenly patriotic times, the Denver Art Museum finds itself, more or less accidentally, with three splendid shows celebrating American art, and American artists. We've already reviewed the Alice Neel show (see "Unflinching Eye" in our Oct. 4 issue), and we'll be talking about the Harmsen collection of Western art (opening on the 23rd) in a couple of weeks. This week, let's take a look at the third show, The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore.

First of all, the notion that there was a "Cos Cob Art Colony" is itself debatable, one of the genial dodges that art critics, art historians, and gimlet-eyed art dealers employ to make mediocre artists seem important. But so what; in this case, the fact that a dozen or so highly competent artists, most of them so-called American Impressionists, spent some time circa 1900 in this pleasant Connecticut fishing village creates an excuse for a thoroughly enjoyable show.

American Impressionists, although deeply influenced by their French predecessors, are very different in subject matter and spirit. French Impressionism celebrated the lives and joys of ordinary people; for example, Renoir's great masterpiece "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" is clearly about working-class people on a Sunday excursion. By contrast, the so-called Cos Cob artists were more interested in the quiet lives of a leisured middle class. Childe Hassam's masterpiece "The Bowl of Goldfish," depicting a young woman contemplating same, in the light-flooded sunroom of a comfortable house, is about the manifold joys of home. There's nothing edgy about it; it's deeply comforting, secure and happy. It's a radiantly beautiful painting, technically flawless, and reminds us that Hassam is one of our very best.

Hassam's lively talent is evident in a number of other works in the show, notably "The Brush House," a bravura display of his mastery of light and shadow. Just as John Elway made journeyman quarterbacks look absolutely awful (anybody remember Tommy Maddox?), Hassam makes his fellow Cos Cobbers look much weaker than they are. J. Alden Weir, Theodore Robinson and Allen Tucker are all thoroughly capable artists; their paintings, compared to Hassam's, seem thin and tentative.

John Twachtman, however, looks just fine. "Snowbound," a landscape in dazzling white, would have been much more than that to its 1890s viewers. Its title and subject matter -- an isolated farmhouse in the aftermath of a winter storm -- would have recalled John Greenleaf Whittier's elegaic epic poem of the same name, then an icon of American literature.

As always at the Denver Art Museum, the show is beautifully displayed, this time in a series of spare, uncluttered galleries, each with relatively few paintings. We toured on a Sunday afternoon; there were plenty of folks there, but it never felt crowded, thanks to the spacious layout.

Appropriately, you finish your tour in a single small gallery, where only one painting is hung; Twachtman's "Sailing in the Mist" from 1895. Almost monochromatic, suffused with pale, watery light, the painting depicts a slight figure at the helm of a catboat as it disappears into a shimmering fog. Twachtman called it "Elsie Sailing"; it memorializes his daughter, who had died of scarlet fever a few months before. It's a wonderful painting, as atmospheric as a late Turner, as subtly joyful as Monet's water lilies.

Tickets to the show cost $9.50, but before you groan, consider that the tix are good for all three American shows; this one, Alice Neel, and the soon-to-open The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy. At $3.17 a pop, that's a heckuva deal (as we might say in Minnesota), so you'd be well advised to go. Cos Cob is full of fine paintings, and a few wonderful ones; you'll leave with a renewed optimism, a refreshed spirit. And how does that feel? Kind of like watching John Elway throw a last-second touchdown pass to beat the Raiders ...

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