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A Historic Gift

Longtime CMA supporters Joseph and Nancy Keithley give 114 works, the largest gift in more than 60 years. Learn about some highlights.
June 30, 2020
The Port of l'Estaque, the Pier, 1906. Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963).  2020.104 

The highlight of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s reopening will be the first gallery view visitors will have of a selection of the stellar works given to the museum in March by Clevelanders Joseph P. and Nancy F. Keithley. The gift and promised gift of more than 100 paintings, drawings, and prints; Chinese and Japanese ceramics; and other works is valued at more than $100 million and is the largest gift to the CMA since the 1958 bequest of Leonard C. Hanna Jr.

Nancy and Joseph Keithley are longtime, generous supporters of the museum. Nancy became a trustee in 2001 and served as chair of the Accessions Advisory and Collections committees from 2006 to 2011. She is currently a member of the Executive, Buildings and Grounds, and Collections committees. An engineer by training, Joseph is the former chairman of the CMA’s board and president and CEO of Keithley Instruments Inc.

The extraordinary gift and promised gift includes major paintings by key Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, European modernists, and American post-war artists. Paintings by the Nabis, a group of young artists active in the final decade of the 1800s in Paris, are a highlight of the collection. These works bolster the CMA’s stature as one of the principal repositories of 19th- and 20th-century French art in America, while strengthening the holdings of Asian art and of American paintings and adding to the collection a number of artists who we had long hoped to represent at the museum.

Of astounding quality, the collection includes some of the most celebrated names in art history. There are five paintings by Pierre Bonnard; four each by Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard; two each by Milton Avery, Georges Braque, Gustave Caillebotte, Joan Mitchell, and Félix Vallotton; and individual works by Henri-Edmond Cross, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and Andrew Wyeth. Following are four highlights among the French works:

Widely celebrated as one of the inventors of Cubism, Georges Braque was also an important member of the French Fauves (“Wild Beasts”). From 1906 to 1907, Braque traveled between Antwerp, Paris, La Ciotat, and L’Estaque painting Fauvist landscapes, harbor scenes, urban vistas, nudes, and still lifes. Along with Henri Matisse, Braque advanced the Fauves’s aim of liberating color from natural appearances to use it for purely expressive purposes. His Port of L’Estaque, the Pier exemplifies the approach. “This painting is filled with bold strokes of pure, unmodulated color, often in juxtapositions of complementary color contrasts: orange against blue, green against red, yellow against violet,” says William Robinson, senior curator of modern European painting and sculpture, 1800–1960. “The explosive palette and radical simplifications of form are intended to produce an intense sensory experience that conveys the artist’s emotional response to the motif.”

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Blessing of a Yacht on the Belon River 1899. Maurice Denis (French, 1870–1943). Oil on canvas; 75 x 80 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.110
Blessing of a Yacht on the Belon River 1899. Maurice Denis (French, 1870–1943). Oil on canvas; 75 x 80 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.110

Blessing of a Yacht on the Belon River is one of four paintings in the Keithley gift by Maurice Denis, a member of the Nabis. Taking their name from the Hebrew and Arabic terms for “prophet,” the Nabis abandoned the Impressionist goal of depicting the fleeting effects of nature and instead sought to convey a deeper level of meaning through harmonious arrangements of decorative line and color. Denis’s painting depicts a crowd of figures standing on a riverbank, their forms simplified and rendered with pure colors, reflecting the artist’s fascination with the humble, spiritual life of a rural community set apart from the tumultuous strife of modern urban life.

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Tulips 1914. Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Oil on canvas; 114.3 x 90 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.111
Tulips 1914. Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Oil on canvas; 114.3 x 90 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.111

Henri Matisse was a leader of the French Fauves, who advocated the complete liberation of color from natural appearances and the reduction of formal elements to absolute essentials. In Tulips (see p. 8), a vase of flowers floats mysteriously against fields of thinly applied turquoise, aqua, and lavender. While the colorful tulips express a joyful sentiment, the vase rests precariously on a planar shape, perhaps a tabletop. “The uncertainty of the vase’s position as it extends over the edge,” Robinson says, “and whether the tabletop continues to the right through a plane of transparent color, together with the strange black rectangle in the background, inserts a contravening feeling of disquiet and visual tension into the time-honored genre of still-life painting.”

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Fish Market 1902. Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903). Oil on canvas; 66 x 81.3 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.113
Fish Market 1902. Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903). Oil on canvas; 66 x 81.3 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.113

Camille Pissarro’s impressive view of a bustling fish market belongs to a series of paintings that the artist made during the summer of 1902 depicting the harbors of Dieppe. Borrowing from the Impressionist method of portraying a modern city from a high vantage point, he enlivened the scene with rich, vibrant colors applied with energetic, broken brushstrokes. Ever concerned with the fleeting effects of atmosphere, Pissarro painted the interpenetration of clouds, steam, and industrial smoke that filled the sky. Prior to this acquisition, the CMA had two paintings by Pissarro, both from the 1870s. This painting enriches the museum’s Impressionist collection by adding a cityscape and a later work by one of the movement’s most important artists.   

Joan Mitchell’s Gouise, 1967
Among the many gems in the Keithley gift is Joan Mitchell’s Gouise, an abstract painting teeming with energetic brushwork in vibrant color. Its composition features a dense web of swirling shapes, lush curls, and cascading, tendril-like drips. These organic forms, coupled with their coloration, prompt us to rightly infer that the painting was inspired by landscape.

Mitchell was a 20th-century American painter who forged a successful path through the overwhelmingly male-dominated art world of her era. She moved to New York City during the late 1940s and joined a cutting-edge group of artists who used abstraction to communicate strong emotions. By the late 1950s, Mitchell relocated to France, where she lived the rest of her life. After first residing in Paris, in 1967 she bought a two-acre country estate in a small town overlooking the Seine River. Perhaps one selling point was its gardener’s cottage that had once been home to the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Ultimately, the French countryside rejuvenated both her spirits and art.

Like someone who suddenly adopts a new religion, Mitchell embraced the rural scenery with a rapturous fervor. Created during this transformative year, our new painting is named after a quaint village in central France whose population has numbered fewer than 300 people throughout its long history. Mitchell had paid a summertime visit to Gouise, and this work is based on the fresh recollection of her time there.

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Gouise 1967. Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992). Oil on canvas; 194.3 x 113.8 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.172. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Gouise 1967. Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992). Oil on canvas; 194.3 x 113.8 cm. Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.172. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

The painting stands more than six feet tall, and there is a sense of envelopment when we stand close to it, our field of vision filled by a dazzle of highly saturated reds, ochres, blues, and greens. Texture also plays an important role in experiencing the canvas. Because of Mitchell’s highly charged paint application, many forms seem to burst from the painting’s surface. Throughout every aspect of Gouise, we can experience the artist’s passionate responses to nature that she so powerfully filtered through memory and sensation.


Cleveland Art, Summer 2020