Daffodils are blooming, heavy woolen overcoats are going into storage, street trees are in bud, days are getting longer. "Winter Into Spring," the 20-picture show at the Freer Gallery of Art, could not be more timely. Its hues are grays and greens, its mood is soft and dreamy. The men who made these objects, and Charles Lang Freer, who bought them, urge us to engage--as did the Oriental sages they so much admired--in what Wallace Stevens called "the essential exercise," the genteel contemplation of the season's change.
The painters represented, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Abbott Henderson Thayer, Dwight William Tryon, James McNeill Whistler, and Charles Adams Platt (who in his guise as architect designed the Freer museum), were art-for-art's-sake folk. They loved summarizing brushstrokes, pale subtle color, and poetic evocations. The viewer cannot name--perhaps the painters could not either--the trees that they portrayed. They cared far more for reverie than they did for science.
Freer, who died in 1919, may be best remembered for the Oriental art he presented to the nation, but that enormously refined Detroit manufacturer also bought the country some 1,400 paintings produced by his countrymen. The 20 on display were chosen from that hoard by David Park Curry, the gallery's new curator of American art. Almost all are landscapes showing spring or winter. A sense of perfumed delicacy seems to hover round them. Americans may pride themselves on toughness, practicality, and fondness for sharp focus, but these painters, and their patron, felt that they belonged to some higher plane.
They saw themselves as esthetes. They were dandies of a sort. Mingled in their pictures are borrowings from Emerson, from Oriental art, and from those painters trained in France, in the countryside near Barbizon, who claimed to paint their landscapes not in the shelter of the studio, but in the open air. These pictures champion harmony and what Freer took to be the best sort of good taste. Their colors never shout or clash, their subjects never overwhelm. Nothing here offends.
Of the artists represented, three are very fine. They are Dewing, who may be the most genteel of the lot (his "Yellow Tulips," 1908, shows a maiden in a floor-length gown admiring the flowers in a Chinese vase), Tryon (who for too long has been underrated), and Whistler (who tends to run off with this show.) The late Whistlers on view--"Symphony in Grey: Early Morning Thames" (1871) and "Nocturne: Trafalgar Square, Chelsea--Snow" (1875-77)--are quickly-brushed portrayals of shape-dissolving mists. Nearly Japanese in spirit, they could not be more subtle. An early Whistler on view, "The Thames in Ice" (1860), a chilly handsome picture of a sailing ship at anchor, is just as quickly done but sprinkled with specifics, the bobby in the foreground, the pilings in the river, the factories beyond. Such hooks for the attention are found rarely in this show.
Tryon's fine pastels--"Winter: Connecticut Valley" (1894) and "Late Spring" (1885)--though tiny, are imposing. In no way have they dated. They have the air, the presence, of modern field paintings.
In spring, 1913, Freer wrote Tryon from Detroit, "at last, the leaves and blossoms are fairly open and . . . strive to outshine each other in their mysterious effects." Sixteen springs had passed since Tryon, writing to his patron, had noted that though "apple trees are in bloom and all is fair . . . to my mind the reality does not equal the dream." A sense of mystery, of dreaming--an intimation of spring fever--pulses in this quiet, contemplative show. It will remain on view through June.