- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

Extraordinary private art caches don’t often come to Washington, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection” is certainly one.

Enamored of American impressionist painters Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and others, Hugh and Marie Halff — possessors of a Texas dry goods, cattle and banking fortune — literally zoomed in on the market from 1984 through 1990.

In those few years, they bought 20 of the 26 turn-of-the-century paintings of this genre on view. They also made theirs one of the premier American impressionist and Gilded Age collections in the world.

“It began when I gave [Hugh] a wall calendar of these artists to put in front of his bathroom scales,” Mrs. Halff laughingly recalls in a telephone interview.

“The artists grew on him, and we began going to museums and buying only the finest we could find. When Hugh had two life-threatening operations in 1983 and 1984, we stepped up the buying pace.”

It turns out they were at the right place at the right time, as the beautifully installed display by exhibit curator Eleanor Jones Harvey shows. She divided the curved barrel-vaulted, gleaming, gold-hued Barbro and Bernard Osher Galleries — into three graceful exhibition rooms.

Formerly known as the Granite Gallery — part of the original 1840s Patent Office Building design — the space has long been a favorite with visitors.

Dividing the exhibit by themes, she placed cityscapes by Hassam and landscapes by Twachtman, two of the most famous American impressionists, in the first room. Impressionist portraits and figures by Chase, John Singer Sargent and other notables dominate the second. In a third, Japonisme and Orientalism shown in Charles Sprague Pearce’s “Lady With a Fan” and H. Siddons Mowbray’s flauntingly sensual “Two Women” — one lady’s breasts appear to be falling out of her gown — join the more staid works of the first two rooms.

Although Mrs. Halff says the paintings in the collection have more similarities than differences, the contrasts are obvious. After all, the collection stretches over more than 100 years, from Winslow Homer (1836-1910) to Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Contrast Sargent’s sensual “Sulphur Match”(1882) with Twachtman’s lilting landscape “From the Holley House, Cos Cob, Connecticut” (about 1901), both in the first bay. Sargent’s tavern lovers — a black-robed man and red-shawled woman — revel only in each other. Obviously influenced by the Spaniard Diego Velasquez’s color and roughened, thickened brushwork, Sargent’s compressed composition is as intense as the sexual innuendoes.

Although both Sargent and Twachtman studied in Europe, their approaches couldn’t differ more. Twachtman implies his subject — spring in Connecticut — rather than stating it roughly, as Sargent did. The landscapist poetically depicts the bursting season with trees about to leaf, ice breaking on the river and grass beginning to green.

America’s developing cities fascinated Hassam and influenced his paintings of New York and Boston. The exhibit’s first image, “New York Bouquet: West Forty-Second Street” (1917), shows New York as an exploding metropolis. His “Clearing Sunset (Corner of Berkeley Street and Columbus Avenue)” (1890) records Boston in transition to the modern age with horses pulling hansom cabs and vapor rising from steam engines.

In one of the collection’s most charming paintings, Chase’s “Ring Toss” (circa 1896), the artist also shows Velasquez’s influence. The artist had taken his wife and two eldest daughters to Madrid for a spring trip, and the painting’s deep, oblique foreground diagonals, children’s concentrated attentions and deep blacks and reds immediately recall the Spanish master.

Japanese art directly influenced impressionist artists, as shown in the last rooms. Both Edmund C. Tarbell in “Girl Cutting Patterns” (1907-1908) and William McGregor Paxton with “Morning Paper” (1913) look to the East with diagonally designed compositions and intriguing empty spaces.

Edward Hopper’s haunting “House by an Inlet” (1930) — an empty New England dwelling — rounds out the show and is the most modernist painting included. Mrs. Halff says she and her husband bought it for investment purposes but that it grew on them. It could reveal a new direction in their collecting.

Visitors can enjoy all of these extraordinary paintings whether they fit into the American impressionism mold or not. Each is a jewel and shows the artist’s deepest emotions and the cutting-edge techniques of the time.

WHAT: “An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection”

WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F Streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, through Feb. 4

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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