If you’re looking for an escape from these dreary winter days, a visit to the Frist Art Museum is in order. Two new exhibitions will take guests on a visual journey to British sporting fields, French landscapes and beyond. 

‘Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: The Mellon Collection of French Art’ and ‘A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art’ opened at the Frist on Saturday. Both exhibitions are from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The works were donated to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by Paul and Rachel ‘Bunny’ Lambert Mellon, who were celebrated philanthropists and collectors of fine art. 

Both exhibitions are organized thematically. The French collection features equestrian art, human figures and portraits, and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist landscapes. The British collection is a showcase in the genre of sporting art: horse racing, hunting, fishing, and farming.

“It’s set up to reflect the interest of the collectors, at least the French part of the show is set up to reflect the interest of the collectors. Paul Mellon was absolutely in love with everything equestrian. So you have the British, which has a lot of horse pictures, racing, fox hunting. But when he started collecting French art, he really was drawn to French images of horses. So this first gallery shows that passion,” said Frist Art Museum Chief Curator Mark Scala.

The French collection includes more than 70 works by masters, many of whom need only be listed by their last names: Degas, Monet, Picasso, Van Goh. On the British sporting side, paintings by George Stubbs are a highlight.

The two exhibitions are very different and, at first glance, may not seem like they go together. But that’s the beauty, said Michael Taylor, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In comparing equestrian paintings by Edward Degas and George Stubbs, Taylor said, “I think these two paintings are so instructive because the British artists, like Stubbs, he’s really looking at the anatomy of the horse. He wants to understand its physique, its appearance, its structure. Whereas, I think, what Degas is doing is capturing how a horse moves… To me, that is the contrast. The British art is very traditional and there’s a genre that they don’t get outside of the box. And someone like Degas is way outside of the box. There’s something for everyone here.” 

One particular Degas piece, ‘At the Milliner’ is a popular topic of conversation. The painting depicts a woman looking at herself in a mirror. However, her face in the reflection is absent, leaving the viewer to wonder why Degas didn’t finish. 

“It’s kind of spooky,” Scala said of the painting. “Nothing is known; nothing is clear about that. But the fact that he [Degas] loved mystery, that he loved to raise questions with his work makes me think that it might have been purposeful, that he thought the painting was as done as it needed to be done.”

No matter the exhibit or whose name is in the corner of a painting, Scala hopes all works featured at the Frist get people talking. “My real joy in life is to come into the galleries when there are people standing in front of the paintings, talking about the works of art, finding things they connect with that makes their experience more meaningful and enjoyable. That just gives me so much pleasure,” he said.

‘Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: The Mellon Collection of French Art’ and ‘A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art’ will be on exhibit through May 5.

The Frist has special programs and events to coincide with the collections. Visit the museum’s website for more information.


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