By Kevin Conley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 30, 2010; C01
What did a pair of rebellious young heiresses do, a hundred years ago, in the days before TMZ and table dancing? Well, based on the quiet and glowing show opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, they did not flash their knickers but collected art instead -- key impressionist landscapes, pastoral scenes of the working rural poor, the occasional romantic seascape, a post-impressionist masterwork or two. The resulting collection -- largely assembled in a burst of youthful enthusiasm, from 1908 through World War I, and donated after their deaths to the National Museum Wales -- has a strikingly distinct point of view that you will not encounter anywhere else.
"Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces From the Davies Collection" is, first off, a rarity on the most practical level: The majority of the 53 works on display have never traveled to this hemisphere. But the show grabs you for more mysterious reasons.
Standout collections tend to reflect the virtues of their collectors -- at the Chester Dale show, for example, opening Sunday at the National Gallery, it's impossible to miss the moxie and ambition of the Wall Street wheeler-dealer who put it all together. But in this show, the Davies sisters, who inherited two-thirds of the coal and shipping fortune amassed by their Welsh grandfather, David Davies, leave an equally strong impression of an entirely opposite sort: modesty.
From our perspective, a century later and after several waves of liberation and emancipation, Gwendoline and Margaret (Daisy) Davies strike us as constrained and heartbreaking characters: lifelong spinsters, teetotalers, adherents of a strict Welsh brand of Calvinism modeled on the simple lives of 1st-century Christians. Oliver Fairclough, a curator from the National Museum Wales who came to Washington for the opening, called the siblings "cripplingly shy" -- they never sought the company of the artists they collected, and they loathed personal recognition, lending their art and funding exhibitions with near-absolute anonymity. Although the sisters' fortune and rank in society would have allowed them entree into the world depicted by E.M. Forster or Henry James -- they too traveled to Venice and kept a place in London -- their quiet lives make the goings on of Golden Age novels appear implausibly racy.
Both received a healthy inheritance -- 500,000 pounds each, which works out to about $50 million dollars today, adjusted for inflation -- but they seem not to have spent a farthing of it on the high life. Art, apparently, was their sole indulgence. Judging by the work here -- the darker Daumiers; Monet's bird's-eye view of London Bridge, almost unrecognizable under a pink fog; a cinematic Millet of a distant lone countryman fighting a roaring wind; the sunlit Cézannes from his late Mont Sainte-Victoire phase -- the Davies sisters' preferred territory was reflective self-effacement. With one stunning exception -- a Renoir portrait of a young actress -- they concentrated on that (nonalcoholic) 19th-century strain of art that found nobility in wistful romantic loneliness.
In this context, the Renoir looks like a bold manifesto, a declaration of independence. A 16-year-old girl wears a bustled dress and dainty cap, all in a then-fashionable shade of indigo blue. The material is a lambent taffeta, and the paint handling is masterly in its offhand detail -- Renoir was the son of a tailor and a seamstress. The girl, with her fawnish dark eyes directed at the viewer, looks like a young Anne Hathaway doing costume drama. She seems cosseted and dainty and assertive and determined all at once -- a nice emotional match for a portrait that Renoir chose for the first impressionist show in 1874. Even 40-some years later the work still retained its air of rebellion -- at least to a pair of wealthy Welsh spinsters.
At this late date, much of the juice has been wrung from impressionism; it's hard to make out the radical modernism in Monet's rosiness or Renoir's soft focus anymore. This show, which measures the growth of the Davieses' confidence by the heft and adventurousness of their acquisitions, restores some of that original bravery. The sisters bought their first pictures at the age of 26 (Gwen) and 24 (Margaret), two atmospheric Corot landscapes purchased individually from the same gallery on successive days. The Corots led to some late Turners, modest in size but marked by his dramatic proto-Weather Channel preoccupations. Soon the buying sprees gained momentum, and the sisters turned to the impressionists -- Venetian scenes by Monet; a chilling Paris snowscape that Manet seems to have roughed in while on guard duty during the Franco-Prussian War. Like the painters they were drawn to, the sisters seem to be accessing new reserves of emotional directness.
We'd never call it that today. The collection steers clear of the overtly shocking. There are no nudes, no slatternly dancers or mopey drinkers, no city scenes equating capitalist bustle with drab gray downpour. But given the consistency of the works, in tone and quality, the omissions do not feel like blind spots but articulate choices. When viewed together at the Corcoran, the sisters' narrow register becomes a strength, evidence of strong conscience and, to borrow a phrase from the era, fine sensibility.
You can see the conscience at work in what they bought (social critics like Millet and Daumier), in what they didn't buy (no louche Lautrec, no fauves, no faux-primitives), even in when they gave up buying. At the start of World War I, the sisters joined the London committee of the French Red Cross and crossed the English Channel to treat wounded soldiers, an experience that shook them profoundly. War expanded their consciousness: Gwendoline managed to make it into Paris on Red Cross business, and she used these occasions to slip away to buy art. This is when she bought the forthright and experimental Cézannes -- two masterpieces, a stand of forest shimmering in the heat ("Provençal Landscape"), tectonic masses heaving their way toward a distant peak ("The François Zola Dam").
A few years after the war, the Davies sisters abandoned collecting to concentrate on more philanthropic efforts, including the League of Nations. One of their last significant acquisitions, bought in 1920, is a key to their changed worldview: "Rain -- Auvers," a turbulent van Gogh wheat field, painted just weeks before his death, the tactile canvas scored with strong diagonal slashes indicating the deluge to come.
Conley is a freelance writer.
Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces From the Davies Collection, through April 25 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St NW. Call 202-639-1700 or visit http://www.corcoran.org.