5 Works Worth a Second Look at the Nelson
Glynnis Stevenson, Project Assistant working on the French Paintings Catalogue at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, gives some insight into five of her favorite works in the museum.
1. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, French (1755-1842), Portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Gramont, Comtesse de Caderousse, 1784
If there was a “#flawless” award at the Nelson, the Comtesse de Caderousse would be the winner, hands down. I imagine the acceptance speech would have gone something like, “I’d like to thank my portraitist Mme Vigée Le Brun for empowering me to go au naturel.” And I know what you’re thinking—she so did not wake up like this! But the powderless hair, the rustic-inspired costume—it was all intended to signify that Queen Marie Antoinette’s perfumed and pompadour-ed entourage could sense that revolution was in the air…at least, they understood that a fashion revolution was in the air. “Let them eat cake” jokes aside, the courtly ladies at Versailles positioned themselves as connoisseurs of good taste and demanded portraits from a formidable female artist who had herself broken several glass ceilings on her way to becoming the official painter to the Queen of France. When I look at this picture, I think about women demanding to be seen and respected on their own terms, which is oh so modern, n’est pas?
2. Margarete Heymann-Löbenstein, designer, German (1899-1990), Haël-Werkstätten, manufacturer, Germany (Marwitz), 1923-1934, Tea Service, 1930
Now I’m a coffee girl myself, but a tea set like this might just change my mind. My overly-caffeinated heart beats just a little bit faster when I encounter unfamiliar objects with amazing stories. The German Bauhaus movement explicitly stated that women were welcome to design and create at their hub in Weimar—enter Margarete Heymann-Löbenstein. After studying at the Bauhaus, she and her husband founded the Haël Werkstätten für Kunstlerische Keramik (Haël Workshop for Artistic Ceramics) in 1923. There, she created beautiful, sleek, and thoughtful pieces designed for everyday use in middle class homes. The Haël Workshop couldn’t survive the onslaught of the Nazi regime, and Heymann-Löbenstein was forced to sell her factory and flee to London. Her contribution to modern design hasn’t received the attention it deserves, but I just love that she’s now center stage in the Bloch Galleries, nestled among work by other German moderns such as Max Beckmann, Karl Hofer, and Emil Nolde. She’s reclaimed her spot in the narrative.
3. Yinka Shonibare, Nigerian (b. 1962), Planets in My Head, Physics, 2010.
I am all about the girl power today (and everyday)! Every time I walk past this piece, I think about how much my parents encouraged me to dream big and pursue my passions. I think about my first word, which was star (probably a symptom of being read Goodnight Moon ad infinitum). And I think about our minds being a teeming constellation of thoughts at any given moment of the day. This girl, a creation of Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, epitomizes so many things for me, but I’m especially drawn to her insatiable curiosity—symbolized by her telescope. She’s accompanied by a list that names great thinkers, both western and non-western, male and female, which really speaks to the universality of inquiry. I will confess to knowing very little about Shonibare’s work, but now I’m curious!
4. Jean-Joseph Lepaute, French, (1768-1846), Manufacturer: Sèvres Imperial Manufactury, French, Clock, 1813.
There is a fantastic Greek myth about a boy named Icarus—long story short, he flew too close to the sun, which melted his waxy wings and caused him to plummet to the Earth. This lesson in hubris was clearly not something Napoleon Bonaparte took to heart, for which I am very grateful as it resulted in the creation of beautiful monuments to his achievements, which form the basis of my personal research. I’d only ever considered the paintings commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victories, but his gifts to friends, including this column, speak to his “l’état, c’est moi” mindset on a much more personal level. We all have that friend whose Instagram is made up solely of selfies—now imagine that that friend’s network of followers encompassed all of Continental Europe. Napoleon gave this miniature version of his commemorative column in Paris’ Place de la Vendôme to the wife of his good friend and trusted commander, Marshal Michel Ney. Sadly this column clock, made from the finest Sèvres porcelain, was not enough to keep Ney from stabbing Napoleon in the back one year later (#frenemies), but it does make an amazing addition to our collection.
5 Claude Monet, French, (1840-1926), Le Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-1874.
I recently learned that I have been mispronouncing the name of this iconic Parisian boulevard; I have been saying capu-CHEEN (as in cappuccino, there I go again with the coffee kick). In any case, it’s capu-SEEN (as in “to see and be seen while strolling down the Boulevard des Capucines”). I’m learning new things everyday! This picture is my current research project at work and I’m really enjoying reading about its initial hostile critical reception and afterlife as one of Monet’s best-loved pictures. Though critics didn’t get Monet’s depiction of bustling city life—one even said his people looked like “black-tongue lickings”—I’ve heard nothing but nice things about the painting since moving to KC. Beyond just being beautiful to look at, Boulevard also makes me think about this city. Monet depicted Paris after it had undergone a massive facelift that had both revitalized the city and made it the cultural capital of Europe. I’ve never had the chance to live in a city that’s undergoing as much change as Kansas City is right now; it’s such an exciting place to call home.