The Magazine

Look and Learn

One collection plus three buildings equals the Yale Art Gallery.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By DANIEL GELERNTER
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The European collection moves from these strengths to a striking weakness in the 17th-century display, which is anchored by a van Dyck with nauseating angels and Rubens’s Hero and Leander (familiarly Puffy Women Drowning, 1605). A pair of large portraits by Hals (first among Holland’s second-string portraitists) provide enhanced dourness. Most museums wouldn’t be able to rectify such a deficiency with any amount of money, but the Yale collection is so deep that you never know what misattributed masterpiece might turn up. In 2010, for example, they found an extraordinary early Velázquez. More recently, a Titian was reclaimed. Both are now in restoration.

Throughout the 18th- and towards the 19th-century galleries, the walls switch from purple to burgundy. The collection here remains uneven but has some surprising successes, such as Alexandre Cabanel’s striking 1881 portrait of the unfortunately named Miss Fanny Clapp. The later 19th century is much stronger, but the attempt to highlight the star attraction—van Gogh’s The Night Café (1888)—has backfired. The painting is centered opposite a doorway from one room to the next, nicely bracketed for the viewer. At the viewer’s back, however, blue daylight streams through unscreened windows and washes out the painting. A less prominent space would show this darkly shimmering masterpiece to better effect.

On the floor above, the transition from European-dominated prewar art to postwar American is beautifully done: You burst out of the closed-in Kahn gallery to an expansive new space in the Swartwout building. Arshile Gorky is to the left, Jackson Pollock dead ahead. In the right corner, an explosive 1970s Willem de Kooning and a 1950s Hans Hoffman are bounded by a black-and-white de Kooning lithograph and a Franz Kline with a rare touch of deep, saturated green. 

Further off to the left, an Alexander Calder mobile dangles cheerfully above the best painting in the museum, Stuart Davis’s Combination Concrete #2 (1956-58). This space has the nonchalant exuberance of an E. B. White essay, or a snowball fight with your girlfriend, and is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. The only disappointment is a pair of Mark Rothkos which should not have been separated from the third Rothko in the Yale collection. These man-sized canvases need a low ceiling and low light (Rothko specified 40-watt bulbs). They should appear monumental and numinous. In this big, bright space, they don’t.

At this point, we still haven’t set foot in the third building. Street Hall is now a self-contained museum of American art before 1900. Paintings are on the upper floor; furniture, silver, glassware, and two charming period rooms are on the lower. Here, unfortunately, the object checklist rears its lazy head and makes it hard to follow the extraordinary story of the American aesthetic. Yale’s collection is first-rate and the installation is splendid. But objects are numbered, and the corresponding descriptions are bundled together on beat-up sheets of cardboard, thus turning the museumgoer into a librarian. And if the checklist has gone missing, you won’t learn anything from a display case except how many objects are contained therein.

The heart of the upstairs painting collection is John Trumbull’s famous Revolutionary War series, which was acquired directly from the artist in 1831 and made Yale the first American university to have an art gallery. Also well represented are Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer; five Homer watercolors tucked away in their own little room are the best pieces here. John Singer Sargent gave most of his work to the Metropolitan Museum, but he did have time to dash off an unusual and beautiful little still life for Yale. Two large Shakespearean scenes by Edwin Austin Abbey are bizarre, but fascinating. Abbey’s wide-eyed heroines seem to be enthralled by a bright, twirling object just offstage, and would obviously believe anything you told them.  

Back in Swartwout, a gallery of 20th-century American representational art includes four Edward Hoppers, which is as strong a collection as you’ll find outside the Whitney. Yale has Rooms for Tourists (1945), one of Hopper’s greatest achievements, and the overrated Rooms by the Sea (1951), beloved of the symbology crowd. 

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