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Couple's Differences Were a Matter of Style


SANTA ANA — Earlier this century, art historians were confused by the apparent split personality of successful 19th-Century American still-life painter William Harnett. Some of his canvases were strikingly illusionistic, while others were bathed in a dusty, atmospheric haze.

Thanks to historical spadework by art critic Alfred Frankenstein, it turned out that the latter works really were by one John Peto, an obscure friend of Harnett's. Although Peto's output is more uneven than Harnett's, his best work is not inferior, just different in mood and scope.

The still-life styles of two of Peto's contemporaries, William Joseph McCloskey and Alberta Binford McCloskey, offer a different kind of contrast. Guest curated for the Bowers Museum by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, a specialist in 19th-Century California art, "Partners in Illusion" (through Dec. 31) includes 31 of 40 paintings by the couple that are in the museum's permanent collection.

The McCloskeys were prosperous still-life and portrait painters during the 1880s and 1890s whose peripatetic lives took them to Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both emphasized surface effects (though convincing depictions of wood grain eluded both of them) and neither seems to have been interested in invoking the somber, centuries-old memento mori symbolism of fruit and flower still lifes.

Alberta's rendering of glass and reflective surfaces, stock qualities of trompe l'oeil painting since the 17th Century, are dazzlingly illusionistic. William tended to soften and generalize his surfaces--but not so definitively as to create a significant sense of mood a la Peto. (Annoyingly, the couple's still lifes don't hang next to each other, making it difficult to compare the two styles.)

While Alberta painstakingly reproduced the specific textures of tissue paper, orange peels or flower petals, William's paintings make you aware that they were, in fact, painted . Separate brush strokes clearly are visible, as are such little shorthand tricks as the virtually identical splotches of red on the yellow apples in "Untitled (apples spilling from glass bowl)."

This is a far cry from the heightened approach to the act of reproducing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface that produced the revolution of modern art. (During the same years, working in near-obscurity in southern France, Paul Cezanne made extraordinary experiments with weight and mass in still-life painting.)

Judging by other works on view, however, William was the flashier figure painter. His portraits of little girls capture the silky luminousness of small children, if little sense of their inner lives. The well-to-do young sitters' fine garments show off William's dexterity at painting lace and organdy.

In a detour from such bread-and-butter commissions, a 1916 portrait of "Jeff," an ambulance driver at Los Angeles County Hospital (where William may have worked for a while), is rare for its era in depicting a black man as a thoughtful human being rather than as a stock figure of amusement or menace.

Such paintings make it hard to agree with Moure's comment in a wall text that William's post-1899 works--after his separation from Alberta and subsequent nervous breakdown--"lack some of the inner human spark seen in the earlier ones." Indeed, they seem more psychological and less reliant on surface brilliance.

The artists' genre scenes, on the other hand, are so larded with the sentimental staginess favored by middle-class turn-of-the-century taste that they are little more than period pieces. Typically, more care seems to have been lavished on the furniture and rugs in these scenes than on the saccharine figures in stock poses.

Moure also curated the Bowers' concurrent exhibition, "Easels in the Arroyos: Plein Air Paintings from the Permanent Collection," which offers the usual array of plein air views of a beautifully unspoiled California, painted in styles that are overwhelmingly flaccid and derivative and that by the 1920s and '30s were woefully out of date. Nostalgic subject matter and collectors' vested interest in keeping market prices high seem to be the twin reasons these paintings have such vocal supporters.

Despite its title, the show also includes 19th-Century and Tonalist works as well as such rarities as May Schaetzel's curious Symbolist landscape "Lost in the Woods" and an Abstract Expressionist canvas by the late Ed Kienholz, painted a few years before he began making the assemblages that secured his reputation.

Another unexpected bonus: Frederick Hammersley's witty abstraction "Four," an example of the new, hard-edged style that developed in Los Angeles in the 1950s, when the Southland was beginning to awaken from provincial torpor.

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